Dan Attoe

404 Arte Contemporanea

In his first European solo exhibition, American artist Dan Attoe portrayed his inner life and his cultural milieu in twenty-five paintings (all works 2004). Trained in both psychology and visual art, he reveals childhood memories and dreams in small cinematic scenes with handwritten captions spoken by characters who seem to be working through deep emotional issues. The paintings are often set in sublime, distinctively American natural landscapes that are so impressive, almost heroic, that they become characters in the scenarios. Underlying these remarkable yet ordinary situations is a sense of uneasiness—and even a touch of Twin Peaks–style surrealism—conveyed through sickeningly vivid colors dominated by cold blues, greens, and yellows, as well as by the deadpan texts and desperate expressions of the subjects.

Sometimes comical and cartoonlike, sometimes mysterious and foreboding, Attoe’s compelling pictures convey the meeting of the everyday with the extraordinary. In the midst of a grandiose romantic landscape, three figures on a cliff stare awestruck at a spectacular unearthly cloud formation bursting forth and bathing them in a splendid light. Yet the handwritten caption below brings us back to earth: I AM WORKING THROUGH THINGS. The paintings often depict unsettling or nightmarish experiences whose drama is undermined by humorous images or ironic captions. An isolated log house surrounded by tall pines and lit up at night—a Christmas tree in the window, a snowman and plastic Santa on the front lawn, and icicles hanging from the roof—has a fairy-tale quality. But we see it from above, dwarfed by a looming yellow-gray storm cloud with a witchlike female head whose mouth emits the words WE ARE ALL MEMORIES. Thus, a feeling of impending disaster hovering over a happy home pervades this mythlike portrayal of a childhood memory.

Adolescent angst is acted out in Disabled, in which a young man wearing a blue mask and a flowered shirt kneels on a tiled kitchen floor with his hands in the air in a scary-monster gesture. Underlined by the comment WE ARE ALL DISABLED, it is at once both tragic and tender. In another painting, a couple stands in a park surrounded by picnicking families. Gesturing emphatically at his blonde companion as if they are arguing, the man says, THINGS INSIDE US MAKE US GO. The narrative nature of Attoe’s work is augmented by notes written on the backs of the paintings—which were revealed by the gallery owner on request—to provide clues to the inspiration or backstory. In Thought Clouds, a man wearing a baseball cap and clenching his fists walks under giant devil-shaped clouds commenting, I NEED THEM. I AM STUCK. On the back the artist has written, “This is the answer to everyone who asks ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ Satan, nothing, air and water and pollution, TV, force, rock music, luck, social ineptitude.” The small scale of the canvases—most of them only five-by-five inches—oddly intensifies their powerful effect: because they must be viewed up close to read the texts, you are drawn into their peculiarly American world. Indeed, Attoe’s paintings can be read like pages from a book—and like good short stories, they suggest the vulnerability and absurdity of life with a few simple gestures.

Cathryn Drake