San Francisco

David Cannon Dashiell

SFAI Walter and McBean Galleries

After the resumption of his career as an artist in 1985, David Cannon Dashiell’s work focused on questions of love and passion, health and morality: on AIDS, as both metaphor and reality in contemporary life. “Queer Mysteries,” the Adaline Kent Award exhibition for 1993, served as a retrospective of the remarkable body of paintings, drawings, sculpture, and installations Dashiell made over the past eight years, since he first began to suspect that he was infected with HIV. Sadly, this show was also Dashiell’s last as a living artist: he died in San Francisco during its final week.

The earlier works (most of which had been shown before in the Bay Area) exude a kind of acerbic yet emotionally charged intelligence. Exploring allegory as a desentimentalized way of dealing with emotionally dangerous issues, Dashiell uses sources like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, the Tarot, and Bosch’s apocalyptic imagery. Simple yet highly technically proficient images, often accompanied by text, examine both the artist’s own sexuality and the millennial tide of fear and loathing that has risen ever higher in recent years, undermining relationships in gay and straight communities alike. The centerpiece of the show, however, was Queer Mysteries, 1993, a hilarious and disturbing frieze of paintings on four-by-eight-foot sheets of acrylic, completed just this spring. Loosely based on frescoes discovered at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, which depict Dionysian initiation rituals, Dashiell’s panoramic version recasts this enigmatic narrative into a more contemporary context. From the doorway of the gallery, in which the 28 panels are installed in a more-or-less continuous band around the room, two overlapping narratives read in opposite directions. From left to right, green-skinned lesbians in sexy sci-fi outfits indoctrinate an “Earthling” (read heterosexual) woman into their strange society. From right to left, a gentleman explorer enters the cult of a group of gay cannibals in knee-high boots, Edwardian breeches and masks. The activities taking place include apparent torture and restraint, with elaborate futuristic gizmos; drugs, sex, and the exchange of bodily fluids (through an IV); severed heads and penises, all silhouetted against a flat scarlet background. The meaning of these strange rituals is both comically, outrageously obvious and inscrutably elusive. Like the narrative on which the work is based, these are ceremonies of initiation, of belonging: and, even, of coming out. Dashiell’s mordantly humorous representation of lesbians as sexy aliens and gay men as cannibalistic hedonists is also a pointed parody of homophobes’ worst nightmares.

Painted on the reverse side of the panels like immense animation cells, these stylized, cartoony figures in aggressively garish colors mime a wry commentary on our culture’s comic-book, B-movie conception ofmyth, fantasy, or even ecstasy, howeverachieved. Yet the end of each story is also its beginning: the single figure of the smiling initiate, calmly seated, is both the first and last thing we see. As Dashiell reminds his viewers in a wall text written for the exhibition, “We all live in a world that is, for all of us, truly queer.”

Maria Porges