Ridgefield

N. Dash, Untitled, 2018, adobe and silk-screen ink on jute, 80 × 54".

N. Dash, Untitled, 2018, adobe and silk-screen ink on jute, 80 × 54".

N. Dash

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

The comfort blanket, or “transitional object”—transitional because it typically accompanies an intermediate developmental phase—is most commonly associated with early childhood, but the adjustment period extends into adult life with striking frequency. A 2010 survey conducted by the British budget hotel chain Travelodge found that 35 percent of England’s adults still slept with a teddy bear. The phenomenon shades easily into grown-up fetishism, too—think of Frank Booth’s masochistic use of a well-loved scrap of fabric in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). So while the small pieces of white cotton that artist N. Dash carries around with her lack (fortunately!) the disturbing connotations of Frank’s talisman, they register as equally obsessive objects.

Dash rubs her material scraps between her fingers until they become dirty and unraveled, defined entirely by wear and tear. She dubs the outwardly abject results “fabric sculptures,” which she then reinterprets as paintings, prints, and photographs, radically altering their scale and significance. In the new work on view in this exhibition, the artist has added other materials, including, most strikingly, adobe, string, and Styrofoam. Aiming to extend her investigation into the effects of touch, she combines these sometimes unruly elements in highly controlled processes that nonetheless allow for the operation of chance. She allows unstretched fabric to settle into its own form, for instance, and makes no effort to hide the cracks and puckers that naturally occur in her troweled mud surfaces as the material dries.

Adobe is, of course, a building material, and Dash’s use of it as a base layer on which to paint and print lends her project an architectural quality, producing an interplay of scales and alluding to a vital link between the organic and the manufactured. Sourcing her mud from the New Mexico desert, the artist applies it to stretched jute and linen, sometimes incorporating and then removing lengths of string to carve out narrow channels that form physical pathways between different parts of the work. At the works’ edges and corners, elements visibly wrap around or cut into their sunbaked foundations, revealing their construction. The result is a fusion of map and territory, in which the lingering presence of cotton as a symbol of violent oppression maintains a muted underlying tension.

Dash’s emphasis on free play within clearly defined formal boundaries has resulted, then, in a distinctly restrained, even uptight, exhibition: Texture and color are organized and contained with relentless efficiency. Many works are divided into separate parts, evidenced by juxtapositions of printed imagery or by physical variations. Facing each other across the space, for example, are a large, pale diptych draped in linen and a multipanel work interrupted by lengths of pale-blue polystyrene. The latter suggests a kind of kit painting, a set of elements designed for reassembly that incorporates its own container.

If Dash’s goal here is to package dynamic potential tightly without once allowing it to boil over into a messy tangibility, this exhibition can only be called a success. But it also represents a risky path, one that will require continual monitoring of the work to avoid a collapse into merely tasteful—or, as implied by Dash’s process, comforting—variation.