New York

Dexter Dalwood

Gagosian | 522 West 21st Street

The landmarks by means of which Dexter Dalwood maps out a cultural landscape are both recognizable and disconcerting. Paintings referring to Mao and Stalin, Bill Gates and Kurt Cobain sit alongside others devoted to Patty Hearst, Ulrike Meinhof, and Brian Jones. Like the paintings themselves, which depict unpopulated fantasy-bespoke interiors cobbled together from a variety of art and design sources, Dalwood’s choice of iconic figures is both utterly familiar and willfully idiosyncratic. People who remain vivid in the popular imagination rub shoulders with others half-forgotten. This might be a problem if all Dalwood were doing was name checking, but the scenes he paints are more a meditation on representation and its inextricable relationship to absence and death than they are simple homages to or acknowledgments of the famous, the infamous, or the powerful.

Mao Tse-Tung’s Study, 2000, shows a cracked mud floor on which a low dais supports a bench and a desk. Hanging on the black paneled wall above the desk is a small portrait of Mao vaguely reminiscent of Warhol’s. On either side of this a Chinese flag and a blue worker’s jacket suggest that Oldenburg, and maybe a little Wesselmann, are being mixed in here too. The paneling itself is a straight take on Stella’s black stripe paintings. References of this sort were everywhere throughout the show. The dilapidated pale blue walls of Brian Jones’ Swimming Pool, 2000, evoke Clyfford Still. A classic Bauhaus cantilever chair sits under the desk in Ulrike Meinhof’s Bedsit, 2000. The wall in the study for Patty Hearst’s Apartment, 1999, is a Gerhard Richter abstraction, and the multicolored circular mat on the chapel floor in Mount Carmel, Waco, 2000, alludes to Matisse’s designs for Vence, while the scene outside the chapel window apes Wyeth.

The effect of Dalwood’s free play with recent art history is to hook viewers with something familiar while refusing them the satisfaction of pictorial coherence. Although Dalwood’s stylistic borrowings are in each case stitched together to make a space, this space never manages truly to contain any of the objects we see within it. Neither the hotline telephone on the table in Stalin’s War Room, 2000, the papers on Meinhof’s desk, nor the cross in the Waco chapel sit properly against their backgrounds. Instead, they exist within a small bubble of some other place or of no place at all. Above and around the recognizable Seattle skyline seen through the window of Kurt Cobain’s Greenhouse, 2000, for example, the sky is a patchwork of different blues. Trees to either side of the view indicate that it is not only both winter and spring, but also probably somewhere other than Seattle.

Café Deutschland, 2000, replicates Jerg Immendorff’s theater of East-West conflict but emptied of its circus of art-world figures. Beyond the tables familiar from Immendorff’s paintings, the space remains divided: To the right, the curved rows of seating in the National Assembly are clearly depicted, while to the left the seating is indistinct and informal. What comes through in the unreconciled halves of Café Deutschland, as in the slippages and dislocations of Dalwood’s other paintings, is that larger tension within the word representation itself: the tension between art and politics. Is all of this just a ragbag of rhetorics, Dalwood seems to be asking, or is it possible to respond to Meinhof’s actions outside of their selective reproduction in Richter’s paintings, and to see something more in Hearst than her immortalization in a Cady Noland installation?

Michael Archer