Debra Dawes

Mori Gallery

Are Debra Dawes’ paintings geometric abstractions, or are they critiques, one step removed? Because her recent exhibitions have reviewed the history of Modernist abstraction, the current “Houndstooth” series (all works 1991) presents itself as a riddle. The artist’s distance from her models is disconcerting, and is symptomatic of the widening gulf between the twentieth century and its present remainder. At the same time, Dawes’ black and white rectangles offer themselves as objects of self-sufficient contemplation. The Large Verticals resist simple appreciation, promoting a state of bodily awareness similar to the experience of Minimal art, but this is, in turn, bracketed by the particularly self-conscious character of Dawes’ manufacture.

All of these works are based on structures so familiar that they cannot be read as anything other than clichés: squares, or asymmetrical divisions of a vertical rectangle. Although description makes the paintings sound programmatic, nothing could be further from the case. The Large Verticals exhibit a double allegiance: to the pleasures of a truly sensuous painting and to the rigor of a serial installation’s minimal imagery. The closer one stands, the more inflections one notices. Final closure on either aspect—intellectual or handmade—is blocked. Right-angled geometry is traditionally indicative of magisterial detachment; yet these pictures suggest intimacy. Paint extends around the sides of Dawes’ canvases: in Horizontal No. 12 a third color—yellow-ocher—is visible along the black canvas edge. A subliminal blue zip bisects Large Vertical No. 8 echoing the faint brown line in Large Vertical No. 9. The artist’s large rectangles of black or white are carefully spaced and edged to create optical afterimages. Neither the overall gestalt nor the minute play of handmade difference is allowed to dominate.

This refusal is the weirdest thing about “Houndstooth”; Dawes’ contradictory signals defeat references to both landscape and to utopian formalist abstraction. Dawes takes our knowledge of Modernist abstraction for granted. If order in this exhibition is only slowly and seemingly assembled, then it is the way that Dawes plays with our expectations of nonobjective art that gives “Houndstooth” its interest.

I am inclined to see the “Houndstooth” series as intentionally lacking in emotional depth. Dawes deliberately mistakes Modernism for its signs in order to make the purely plastic language of form available for interrogation. If a radical art practice tends toward subversion, then what is undermined by these subliminal edges and unexpected optical illusions? Young artists like Dawes accept an alienated relationship to power; in present historical circumstances, it is hard to imagine a more persuasive basis for abstraction.

Charles Green