Chicago

Dan Gustin

J. Rosenthal Fine Arts

At one point in this recent sequence of pictures, Dan Gustin’s palette dimmed, the light went out of his colors, and the figures in the painting were plunged into murky waters and had to learn to swim below the surface as well as on it. This happens in Equestrian Pool I, 1986, in which a woman dives down so that only her feet still break the surface of the water near the top of the canvas. Yet she appears to be in midair as well, as if she had just launched herself from the diving board above the pool located at the bottom of the painting. She is an enigmatic central figure; her body is streaked with aqua like the coral patterns of wavering light that wrap themselves around a swimmer underwater. But she has not yet broken the surface of the pool below her, and the surface above could as easily be clouds as water. From the gaping mouth of a boy riding a horse in the pool, a wisp of blue issues like an exhaled breath in cold weather, like inhaled water beneath the surface of warm tropical seas.

The painting appears to impart this symbolic intensity to the experience of drowning, and thus the disorientation, the uncertainty as to the surface’s location. We surely have such hallucinations when we drown; only then could we feel the suffocation that the lightlessness of Gustin’s colors evokes. In a couple of earlier pictures in this sequence, drowning is not the powerful subject it is here but rather a superficial metaphor for something else, perhaps sex. Look at First to Shore, 1985–86, in which a nude man hangs by his knees from the seat of a rowboat nearly upended in the surf. His head and arms are awash beneath the pitching water, so his torso is all we can see. He has an erection. A few feet away, a woman in a bathing suit lies in shallows by a fire on the beach. Her posture around the fire is part exhaustion, part snuggle. The warm glow of bright colors in which she now basks resembles a return to consciousness after submersion. She has left the man behind in storm-tossed waters; he wallows there in oblivion, still half-drowned.

The metaphor here is one of orgasmic love as a kind of shipwreck and drowning just barely survived. Other paintings have comparable moments of brightness and erotic obsession. In The Agreement, 1985–86, a nude man hangs around the waist of a clothed woman who struggles either to free herself or to pull him ashore—we can’t be sure which. In Triadic Beach, 1985–86, a nude man and woman emerge from the water as a boy hovers over the woman’s fetishistic foot. But I prefer Equestrian Pool and Bricolouric Self, 1985, which don’t hover so near the well-lit surface of the conscious mind and explicit sexuality. In the latter of these, but perhaps in both, the drowning metaphor seems to become a subject in its own right. No longer a facile comparison, it’s treated as if it were a personal experience that needs pondering. Consequently the imagery gets into deeper water, becoming more profound. Instead of being about the immediate and merely sensuous experience of sex, the symbolism now seems to drift up from that nether world of memory, fantasy, association, and oblivion to which our sexuality always connects us.

Colin Westerbeck