Dominick Di Meo, Limp Voyeur in a Humid Landscape, 1965, synthetic polymer on canvas, 19 5/8 x 23 5/8".

Dominick Di Meo, Limp Voyeur in a Humid Landscape, 1965, synthetic polymer on canvas, 19 5/8 x 23 5/8".

Dominick Di Meo

Dominick Di Meo, Limp Voyeur in a Humid Landscape, 1965, synthetic polymer on canvas, 19 5/8 x 23 5/8".

In his first UK exhibition, Dominick Di Meo was represented by a selection of his production from the years 1960–74, but the work was not necessarily what we would imagine from an artist in that era. Born in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1927 and raised in Chicago, enduring a difficult childhood that included a long bout with polio, Di Meo did not move to New York City until 1974, and so was not influenced by the Pop, Minimalism, and painterly abstraction that emanated from that metropolis in the 1960s. Instead, his interests were broader and rather unexpected: He was drawn to Aztec art while a student at the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1940s, for instance, and he visited the Roman catacombs during a two-year Italian sojourn from 1961 to ’63. Typically, Di Meo returned from Europe not with a sense of old-world elegance, but with an affinity for the rawness of Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier, artists known for awkward figuration generated through rough, expressive surfaces.

Part of Chicago’s influential Monster Roster circa 1960, which also included June Leaf, Nancy Spero, and Leon Golub, Di Meo stands apart from his fellow Chicago Imagists in that his work appears to be less driven by narrative and more introspective. Untitled, 1963, for instance, an off-white relief, seems to suggest a figure mirrored along a roughly drawn horizontal divide. This arrangement produces two heads with two sets of arms and a pinwheel form, perhaps suggesting a torso, between them; such horizontal mirroring is one of Di Meo’s recurring formal tropes. The artist seems to have created the figure’s various appendages by leaving impressions of forks or even small bones in a wet, plaster-like surface. Its head is formed by three circles within a circle, one an open mouth that might resemble a screaming face à la Edvard Munch. In contrast, the mirrored figure, with its bent, wringing arms and circular mouth, may imply an interior scream. With its pencil scrawl over the uneven, creamy surface, Untitled was the rawest piece in this show, representing Di Meo at his most experimental.

Whereas Di Meo’s works of the early ’60s are mostly reliefs, inspired by his time in Italy, his later work is less physically textured; form and content are smoothly integrated through collage and transfers. At times these playful pieces recall the inventiveness of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, frottage and spray-painted outlines of objects figure prominently in Di Meo’s visual vocabulary, as if he were trying to force the bric-abrac of man’s existence into the picture frame. For example, Limp Voyeur in a Humid Landscape, 1965, the painting from which the exhibition took its title, is a field in which the sprayed outline of two shoes stands among the shadows of tools, keys, cutlery, and other bits of detritus that seem to piece together the ethereal nature of what makes up human life. Many of Di Meo’s collages include self-portraits, and this picture probably also refers to the artist himself as the aforementioned limp voyeur.

Like that of the Europeans whom he admired, Di Meo’s art is deeply rooted in an existential sensibility. One thinks of Georges Bataille’s notion of informe, “formlessness,” revived in recent years by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss and characterized by them as representing a slippage, a “cancellation of boundaries” that also “involves a voiding of categories.” One finds this formlessness even in Di Meo’s figuration. Knowing of the suffering he withstood as a young child, one can only speculate that the roots of his formless figuration reach too deep to be intellectualized more directly.

Sherman Sam