Nature Tries Again: Josh Dorman at Ryan Lee
Josh Dorman: Whorled at Ryan Lee
September 4 to October 11, 2014
515 West 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 397 0742
In the beginning was the Word; but after that came a whole lot of little tiny carefully cut-out-and-collaged pictures. Josh Dorman’s work, and his most recent cycle of paintings/collages in his solo exhibition, “Whorled” at Ryan Lee, seem initially to be about dainty narratives set up on some kind of floating Pollock’s Toy Theatre stage, but his fantasies are more about moving words: typologies, taxonomies and nuance. Because of this, Dorman has bridged the gap between the Word made flesh — via the excised bits of numerous catalogs, dictionaries and manuals — and evolution in all its forms: natural evolution, as well as industrial and architectural, though perhaps the point here is there is little difference. In the background of all the paintings (save one) Dorman has laminated the monotonous and regular, yet ever-changing pattern of a player piano roll, a visual metaphor of the flexible inclusiveness of his visual framework.
Scouring antique books to appropriate their diagrams and illustrations, Dorman tricks the viewer into thinking that his work is about images, but the proof is in the democratic way in which he weighs the individual collaged entities in expansive, landscape-format paintings, such as Memento Mori (all 2014). The collage depicts a wide variety of apes and monkeys frolic on the shores of a lake with a similarly variegated collection of architectural diagrams. There is the all around equanimity of man and nature that marks a Bierstadt-like sensibility, despite the gross-disparities if scale and rendering techniques.
In Memento Mori there are also machine parts such as cams and cogs. The unit within these paintings is not the organism, but the cut-out. Much like a Joseph Cornell box, Dorman creates his drama via an assortment of things. The artist reminds us of the origin of his search by including several entries from a dictionary: “myrrh,” “myrtle,” “myself,” “mysterious.” Past all the smoke and mirrors of feathers, antlers, gears and spots, all of this mess neatly falls into the space between A and Z — the fundamental logic of why everything is there in the first place is irrefutable. Though he flirts between the almighty and Darwin, Dorman plays it safe as a something of a technocrat, or perhaps an encyclopédiste.
He is definitely partial to images of the natural world and this is echoed in the themes of the pieces Unintelligible Design and Natural Selection. But there is a latent criticism of the human need to find a narrative direction in scientific law: the climax, so to speak, of Unitelligible Design is a de-railed locomotive in mid-air over a body of water. The march forward, which begins on the left side of the painting with a horse, ends in a steam-powered disaster. Similarly, in Memento Mori an otherwise innocent-looking primate is munching on the bloody wing of an unfortunate avian. The images are meticulously sliced from the yellowed pages of old books and prints — they are inky and decisive, crosshatched and precisely detailed in the way that only an etching can be. Dorman places his cutouts with fantastical natural backgrounds or dystopian urban/industrial nightmares of elevated bridges and walkways — within a stage set too wild to be real, ironically enough his characters/actors take on an increased individuality, often heightened with touches of color.
Book of Hours is the most didactic and ambitious of the pieces, where Dorman posits a narrative on par with his method. The triptych relies heavily on a series of painting tropes to get a message across of the inevitability of ruin; anthropocentric or otherwise. The first panel depicts a Hicks-like Peaceable Kingdom; in the middle, he pauses for breath in an inky and etched purgatory of a Piranesian Carceri; and comes to rest with a Pieter Breughel-like hell. Predictability is not an issue here; as a painter, Dorman has free access to use many of the time-worn images that his predecessors have used again and again, but is more concerned with contemporary questions of what these tropes mean for us now, and do they still mean at all? More poignant is the video piece Sometimes We Find a Broken Cup. As with Book of Hours it has a message, but similar to several of the collages, it moves in a circular motion, presenting good and bad within the context of the natural world where such moral and aesthetic judgments do not apply. It bears a lovely similarity to Tacita Dean’s gorgeous, nihilistic 2010 film The Friar’s Doodle, and in fact, paired with Dorman’s folded Chinese book A Clawfoot Lamp, the video shows his thoughtful drawing technique to great advantage.
In the end, Dorman’s message seems to be both anarchic and deeply rational, much like the expanse of ideology he encompasses in the work. The paintings are chaotic; streams of illustrations and diagrams act as stand-ins for a series of historical and art historical pantomimes, but there is such a profusion of actors that it almost seems the director has lost control of his set. The joy in looking at the works is getting lost in the detail — but as with evolution itself, the detail is so multitudinous that missing links are hard to find and it can all seem very haphazard and miraculous even. But here is where the methodology brings comfort even if it doesn’t make sense of the disorder (which it does not). Process at least allows the viewer some comfort — Dorman’s alliterative categorical practice reminds us that no matter what scene these actors are playing or how they overlap or distract from each other, they are merely taking a brief vacation from the pages from which they were liberated, and one merely needs to pull a book from the shelf, or google a few letters of their name in order to return them to their epistemological safe haven.