Mill Valley

Poe Dismuke

Susan Cummins Gallery

Fool-the-eye is the pictorial equivalent of sophisticated doggerel in verse; both play on memory’s expectations, embarrassing the mind in its connective gullibility, its rote ha bits of belief. In the observer’s mind, the intrusion on visual reality seems like child’s play, no matter how painstakingly it has been accomplished by grown-up skill. Accordingly, once the trick is revealed, the observer either dismisses it as a paradox unworthy of an adult’s attention, or submits to childlike wonder, transfixed.

Poe Dismuke’s latest figment-ridden assemblages occasion both wonder and the reminiscence of it, as if wonder were integral with the objects of childhood. Actual-size pieces of rickety furniture—chairs, steamer trunks, a footlocker, an armoire, a tall parrot house—are, as Dismuke has said, “new things that look old.” Their dysfunction as furniture points up their real function as syntactic sculptural forms. Fashioned out of wood and sheets of corrugated tin, they harbor among their details slipcast ceramic replicas of toys and ornamental bric-a-brac, thrift-shop Americana of the recent past—circa 1953, say, when Dismuke himself was born. The apparent salvage proclaims a mildewy desuetude. Almost every surface bears a faded primary color or some other patina of age. There a re perfect renditions of wooden ducks, black plastic gorillas, a squeaky rubber pup, and a trunkload of cowboy-and- Indian gear, complete with a tiny, rusted sixgun and a mound of crumple boots. (Dismuke has colored the earthenware boots with boot polish.)

Dismuke’s preservationist esthetic is fun and something more insidious than fun. It suggests the melancholy—the cruelty, even—implicit in nostalgia: the demand that objects associated with past time answer us in kind, in the dialect of enchantment we imagine they once shared with us. The realization that such a language, if we ever knew it, is irretrievable gives a displaced feeling, like the perpetual ache of disappointment that is the leitmotif of so much of John Ashbery’s poetry. Just as the discarded stuff at a landfill dump mounts and spreads to form new contours, the elements Dismuke works with seem to have worn their way into the world by default.

Of the nine assemblages here, the best was the plainest: Resort Chair, 1989, a straight-backed, asymmetrical suturing together of charred scraps, travel decals, and mismatched curlicues. (These last, as well as a row of Chinese figurines just under the seat, make up the clay contingent of the piece). Dismuke was originally inspired to make replicas by seeing the small ceramics Richard Shaw and Robert Hudson cast from found objects in the early ’70s. His own constructions don’t pronounce the high-gloss refinements or compulsive-cum-exquisite artifice that Shaw’s porcelain sculptures do. Like Shaw, however, Dismuke subsumes his virtuosity in delivering an objective imagery. His three colored-pencil drawings further exemplify this conceptual purposefulness. They look to be both work sketches and handsomely designed posters advertising the finished product. A handwritten note on one of them characterizes Dismuke’s current fascination: "travel pieces . . . about journeys and vacations—memories”—memories, one might add, that have come theatrically alive.

Bill Berkson