Holocene Extinction: DeShawn Dumas at Ethan Cohen
DeShawn Dumas: Holocene Extinction at Ethan Cohen New York
June 22 to July 24, 2017
291 West 19th Street, between 7th and 8th avenues
New York City, ecfa.com
Painters work within the conventions of their times, by which I do not just mean within a style or an aesthetic: they are bounded within modes of thinking and feeling that are so pervasive as to be virtually invisible. Some artists embrace these constraints or strain against them, while others both use and rebel against what is given.
DeShawn Dumas, in his exhibition Holocene Extinction, takes a number of the conventions of painting today, pushes them, and in the process makes something urgent. These include provocative use of materials, play of one visual system against another, and the presence of painterly gesture. But this work reaches beyond the formal into a zone of emotion and immersion that itself becomes a medium conveying the personal, the political, and the transcendent, and back again in a continuous loop of reference and contingency.
At the same time that he presents us with this multivalent psychic spectacle, Dumas seals it within glass or thermoplastic, surfaces that are occasionally broken. The transparent sheets both encase the works and carry paint on their reverse sides, in a contemporary version of traditional glass painting. The effect is to dramatize the artist’s and the viewer’s relationship to feeling: at once impassioned and distanced.
In this exhibition Dumas presents work in multiple modes, demonstrating painting’s capacity to unsettle itself, while working both within and beyond its known dimensions. Most striking are the artist’s large-scale paintings that layer reflective Mylar that has been distressed until it is full of holes and fissures. Enhanced with spray paint, these works are psychedelic fantasias, gorgeous and dangerous in their dissolution.
Once Upon the Amazon (Ayahuasca) (2017, all works in show), in a profusion of reflective greens and golds, evokes both the growing world and the inner space of drug-aided visions. The same spirit prevails in Destiny v. The Water Protectors, a work dominated by depths of blues and green. Particularly stirring among the three Mylar works is Hold in Mind (Whiteness and Western Transcendence – apolitical, ahistorical, postracial utopia). In chartreuse, scarlet, and powder blue, it gives us a glimpse of the sublime and simultaneously questions an aesthetic convention left untouched by a larger social awareness.
The painting’s title, as in the case of each of Dumas’s works, is essential in connecting us to the artist’s poetic intent. The exhibition’s title, Holocene Extinction, alerts us to the allusive role that language plays here, and refers to the current geological epoch marked by homo sapiens. Included in the effects are global climate change and the extinction of 30-50% of all species by mid-century.
But for Dumas, the question of extinction also points to the present danger of violence against African-Americans. This is made immediate and personal in the painting Frames of War (frameworks wherein certain lives are regarded as worthy of protection while others are not, precisely because they are not quite “lives.”). The painting is part of an installation that includes drawing on the wall and a small painting on the floor with shattered glass titled Black Mirror (in White). The paintings, along with a bouquet of purple flowers, comprise a memorial to the artist’s half-brother, who died in a police shooting and whose photograph leans against the larger work.
Two other Black Mirror paintings combine expressionist painting with a surface of shattered glass. Untitled (Broken Windows Policy) is a beautiful work that recalls this repressive law enforcement policy. But of the smaller works in the show Untitled (and we hate the po-po want to kill us in the street for show) is the most difficult. It is a bright red wound, with dripping paint the color of dried blood that stains the broken glass covering the surface of the painting.
The most cryptic work of the show is a large horizontal painting, Neoliberal Waltz (He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the Lakotas. And he said: “When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.”) Incorporating the words of Black Elk, the Ogala Dakota medicine man and visionary teacher, the title connects genocide and unrestrained capitalism, embodied in the symbolic nexus of a fragmented gestural ground and a geometric net.