Monday, December 26, 2005

A few paragraphs I was asked to add to an exhibition catalogue for an old friend. In the end it wasn't used.

Abstraction has always been anomalous in art, and pure abstraction even more so. It makes sense if you're an idealist to imagine ideal forms, but such philosophies are as rare as the cultures that encourage them. And even pure abstraction only represents purity; we only know the ideal through the illusion of its presence.

When I first saw Dan’s paintings they reminded me in a way of the early work of Michael Hurson. Hurson’s modernism is T.S. Eliot's: a formalism of secret meanings in which the forms and ideals, if perhaps morally necessary, are also merely theatrical facades. The beauty is in the desire for beauty artfully described, with the vulgar and the common, the impure source material, kept secreted away or exhibited and simultaneously denied. Eliot's references to popular culture seem intended almost to inoculate his poetry against it. The result is an idealism that isn’t: a paradoxical hybrid which Hurson treats with a wink and a nod, but which Eliot plays straight.

Dan's paintings were closer to Eliot than Hurson: you always felt that the metaphors were not supposed to be there, as if Dan were using a ruler that kept changing shape. You saw the paintings winking at you, but you knew looking at them that the maker didn't want them to. The work manifested a crisis, caught between action and intent.

In 7 Grays Dan found a way to escape this crisis, to make use of modernism, to give himself over to it even while denying it; and he did so in a way I didn’t expect and that I’d never seen before, though I’ve seen it a lot since. Dan didn’t mock or parody or empty modernism of "authority” as thousands of press releases have described works of art over the past 20 years. And he didn’t follow Olivier Mosset’s lead and theatricalize his paintings as the work of a Lone Rider, coming to town on a motorcycle or a jet, making a gesture towards pure visual poetry -empty but somehow acknowledging everything else, even politics, in its absence- and riding off again. Mosset is the only master of this; it’s a hard act to follow. What Dan did in 7 Grays was to write the biography of Modernism, to respond to the weight of history by turning a philosophy (and one that was after all, deeply anti-historical) into a history of that philosophy. Dan made a carnival, and a souk, full of all the stories of all the versions and ideologies of the last century. You could say it was a brilliant strategy but it wasn’t. If you love your parents you can’t simply strategize their defeat, even if it's the result of your actions. Besides, if you did, it wouldn’t be art.

Dan created in 7 Grays a poetic recapitulation of what had now finally become the past, celebrating it and closing the door on it at the same time. Like the story of the great Condottiere and the leaders of the town he had just helped to liberate, and to whom he was now as dangerous as he had been to their enemies. “What do we do?” they asked. To which one wag is thought to have replied: “ Let's kill him and make him our Patron Saint.”

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