Verne Dawson

Galerie Eva Presenhuber

It’s always fascinating to see how freely today’s painting deals with stories, including its own. Take, for example, Verne Dawson’s exhibition, in which various modes of painting combine to evoke a complex, inward-looking worldview, replete with layers of reference: In Venus (all works 2003), the goddess, born of foam, is painted as a figurine on a coastline. Venus appears next to Mars, a painting of the red planet on a black quadrant of interstellar night. Nearby are John Giorno, a portrait in profile; Vase, a still life of a richly ornamented little vessel against a bright sky; Three Rats, a tondo featuring a trio of rodents whose tails slither across a flat surface; and two paintings in which the glowing ball of the sun looks as if its red had been melted into the yellow background in a gesture of abstraction. The mythic and the cosmic meet in Aerialists (Red & White), in which two aerialists fly through empty space like self-powered cosmonauts. Circus Bear’s titular figure is the giant of his menagerie, as if to demonstrate that the power of nature can be tamed only briefly. The suggestion of a city skyline in the background of Massacre evokes anything but a repository of culture.

With a narrative style of painting that can be differentiated from naive predecessors only by its compositional exactitude and painterly finesse, Dawson touches on an old topos, the dialectic of myth and enlightenment, which modernism has only nominally decided in favor of enlightenment. He not only gives an overview of the long tradition of self-reflection in painting—thus all the references to its history—but also interrupts that tradition by actively reappropriating its content.

The painted solar disc, sunspots vibrating within its strictly round outlines, appears in two versions, as if seen through different settings of a telescope’s zoom lens: The small version (Sun [1]) shows the ball from a greater distance, centered in a light blue square background with a thin, glowing white halo. Only its disruption by the finest painterly eruptions betrays how far ahead painting is with respect to the human capacity of sight, which forces us to close our eyes when faced with the sun. In the large version (Sun [3]), the sun halo crowds the edges of the canvas and pushes the blue sky out of the quadrant.

Scientific imagery, which continually generates the most spectacular visions, provides pictorial experiences of great intensity and vividness. Today, science uses photography, that objective witness to light, in order to seduce. Painting, on the other hand, calls attention to its own artificiality, so that even visible paint drips become part of its rhetoric. This is the point at which the anachronistic gesture of making a painting speaks to the limits of the medium itself. Dawson’s sun can be seen this way only when painted by Dawson. The subjective view of the sun, too, has a place in history: the history of how human beings created an image of the universe out of the juncture between observation and myth. In Dawson’s paintings, the circus represents a universe in miniature, where the big bear can bring his strength back into play—seemingly untamed, though only as part of the act.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.