New York

Verne Dawson, Expulsion, 2019, oil on linen, 78 × 112".

Verne Dawson, Expulsion, 2019, oil on linen, 78 × 112".

Verne Dawson

Eva Presenhuber | New York

Gavin Brown's Enterprise | New York

Every deck of cards contains a secret calendar. We may pass the hours (or kill them) playing endless games of solitaire, but those kings and queens we’re shuffling symbolize time itself: fifty-two cards for fifty-two weeks in a year, parceled into four seasons. Jokers are leap days, and the thirteen cards comprising each suit represent the new moons. This is the kind of gorgeous arcana that informs the work of Verne Dawson, an Alabama-born painter fascinated by the allegories we have devised to make sense of the world and our place within it. The artist’s interviews and exhibition texts reflect an astounding wealth of research—a trove of natural history and folklore laced with ancient myth, modern archetypes, Christian fables, and pagan rites.

The problem with Dawson’s recent works, however, is that they rarely possess the power and complexity of their source material. His latest portrayals of planets, the creation of mankind, and the arc of civilization, among other subjects, are neither magical nor magnificent. They read like fan fiction based on epic sagas: elaborations that do not particularly enrich what inspired them.

Take, for instance, the seven humdrum tondos at Galerie Eva Presenhuber. Each canvas, framed by a full deck of cards, depicted the celestial body associated with a day of the week, per Norse mythology. A wild-eyed man, presumably Odin, appeared with the caduceus of his Roman counterpart, Mercury, on the face of the planet in Days of the Week (Wednesday), 2019. The cards encircling the swollen full moon in the Friday canvas featured color photos of pneumatic babes in soft-core states of undress (a wry nod to Frigg, the fertility goddess, for whom Friday is named). Dawson illustrates these references, pointing to their general niftiness, without nuancing the interrelated questions of time, religion, and astronomy they evoke. The execution, too, felt stilted. Dawson’s lambent washes of thinned-down oil and restless brushwork tend to convey his passion better when he has more room to move. (Previous seasonally themed paintings starring the likes of Little Red Riding Hood and the Grim Reaper are good examples of what Dawson can make of similar themes when unconstrained by such orderly, compact compositions.)

Five works devoted to the ivory-billed woodpecker were more successful. The creature, a possibly extinct species that has not been definitively seen for decades, has become an object of cult speculation, a bird lover’s Bigfoot or Holy Grail. Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, 1992, depicted the bird in flight within an oval frame, the kind that might otherwise enshrine an ancestral portrait, heightening the sense of nostalgia. In two new paintings more than six feet tall, the woodpecker appeared within a small locket-size orb at the center of each canvas, otherwise covered in swaths of electric blue. The elusive bird exists mostly in memory and the imagination—not unlike myths and folklore. Each circle is a kind of navel, an omphalos marking our severed connection to nature. Through these paintings, we can reflect on what we have lost.

At a concurrent, equally uneven show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the best pieces were large paintings also addressing our fraught, fractured relationship to the environment. Two massive landscapes, both executed in 2019, were beautifully alive with streaks of ocher, robin’s egg, evergreen, slate blue, and palest lavender. Expulsion overlaid Dawson’s banishment from a beloved swimming hole with Adam and Eve’s ejection from Eden, while Mudslide portrayed the aftermath of a rural disaster: A collapsed home slouched beside a giant pit, where a pair of legs jutted from the muck. The paint, finely veined with feathers of turpentine, appeared to weep and bleed for its subjects. But much of the show was devoted to hokey portraits of Prometheus, the rebel titan who made men, gave them stolen fire, and paid dearly for his generosity. In From Clay, 2019, he stood finishing one of his creations, a bobble-headed guy wearing a look of childlike wonderment and what appeared to be neck bolts, after the Frankenstein monster. The subtitle of Mary Shelley’s 1823 novel is The Modern Prometheus, and, broadly put, the book is a parable of creating something that might not actually need to exist. Looking at these goofy pictures, the moral of the story felt all too apropos.