New York

Dirk Bell

Gavin Brown's enterprise | 620 Greenwich Street

That painting might be something like a map of the mind is an old cliché, and the homunculus theory—the notion that art is the product of an anthropomorphized subconscious—is mustier still. But in Dirk Bell’s most recent New York show, “Openeng,” these hoary concepts played to savvy effect. Insisting upon a nonspectacularized yet highly choreographed installation, Bell turned the design into a visual argument in which found paintings—many more than a century old—facilitated a shift from the retrospective to the fantastical. (This passage was also figured through Openeng, 2008, the namesake work, which appeared in the first gallery: a teardrop-shaped sliver of a dilapidated oil landscape pasted to the wall. Despite its pockmarked surface, and the fact that it is nothing more than a little snippet of canvas excerpted from some other old painting for which words like kitsch are too easy, the work effectively cuts illusionism down to size while hardly eschewing its allure.)

Thus, the first room offered something like a review of past exploits newly reimagined. Works such as the Mount Rushmore–esque on the rocks/Me, 2007–2008, show off the lower-case-r romantic drawing for which Bell is known—washy, miasmic swirls trace wafer-thin figures, dissolving symbols seemingly culled from the likes of Ovid and the Brothers Grimm—alongside ECCE HOMO, 2007, a vitrine containing four large sticks and a diminutive carving of an arm, all bundled together like firewood. Elsewhere were canvases found in thrift stores around Berlin; one, the diptych Far to close, 2007, features two horizons that Bell lined up across the panels’ center seam, so that a verdant mountain pass and an equally generic, faintly “Old World” seascape of cypress trees and lapis water continue unabated in mismatched perfection. Then the crux, Amaia, 2007, a massive—and totally quixotic—sculpture comprised of an easel cradling patinated skeins of linoleum (so worn as to look almost like dried hides) and a mannequin, like a female Frenhofer, tattooed with dreamy vignettes, paintbrush (actually a rose stem, tipped with a spooled firecracker) in hand and with a bowl at its feet.

Behind the imposingly empty (or maybe incipient) “canvas” of Amaia lay another gallery, with the ostensibly withheld pictures. A portal to some interior reached only through a narrow passage and presided over by yet another used canvas (a landscape turned on its side to reveal a profile), its recesses were filled with other peoples’ memories, long abandoned for the trash heap or the pawnshop, and newly recuperated by Bell. All were spotlit for emphasis, punctuating the darkened room at irregular intervals. Many were well-behaved, hanging on the wall or leaning against it in tidy groupings like MEMORY/Roarer, 2007, with its three sentimental components; a portrait of a boy from 1892, a woman from a few years earlier, and a third painting facing the wall that the viewer could turn.

Speckled with sediment and cracked with age, anonymous in terms of artist and subject alike, this forlorn grouping functioned like many of Bell’s other unknown sitters and unspecified geographies: as stand-ins for some irretrievable though seemingly present past, mediated through and achieved by the mania for collecting that any good objet trouvé admits. However, untitled, 2007, also implied an end to the dream of the installation’s coy narrative. Canvases tailored into a shirt (one particularly wry side exhibited a shepherding scene), the work suggested, as Bell’s whole project did this time around, that for all the turning in, the artist still cannot help but wear his worldly ambition on his sleeve.

Suzanne Hudson