BOSI Contemporary held an opening reception on October 10th at 6 p.m. for New York artist Dean Dempsey’s first solo show in New York City. The show features a new body of work created predominantly while Dempsey was at a residency in Munich. Previously, Dempsey was featured at Bosi in the spring of 2012 along with Max Glaser in an exhibition titled “Mutatio.”
The “Mutatio” exhibition which ran March 8- April 15, 2012 and was curated by Renato Miracco explored the notions of art as past and present, as a continuation of the art historical aesthetic canon, as a product of the times and society. The exhibition explored an artist giving his own voice rather than being part of a so called “movement,” or trend, these artists drew on the inspiration of old masters in a new and creative as well as playful way. Their common denominator was, definitely, the absence of a specific human physiognomy. Playing on the kabuki theater Dempsey’s works can be divided into three main categories: shosagoto, or dance pieces; jidaimono, or history plays; and sewamono, or plays of the common people. The piece Swan drew on Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding and Berries drew on David’s Death of Marat. The similarities are undeniable and evident in the compositions. However, Dempsey’s pieces have things that make them unique. In Swan we can see the background which recalls a modern interior with the window and brick wall, and he has also exchanged the dog (symbol of fidelity) with a swan which is also a symbol of fidelity, unity, and love. Hinduism believes that swans are saintly persons who are meant to remain in this world without getting attached to it just like the swan’s feathers touch water but never get wet; however in Dempsey’s photograph the swan seems to be plucking out its feathers. Could this symbolize its refusal to not get attached to the world? We as humans often attach ourselves not only to other people but material possessions.
In Dempsey’s Berries photograph, the letter that Marat holds in David’s painting is substituted with a mirror within which we see a camera, the one taking a picture. It is the physical manifestation of a picture within a picture. The camera is observing itself. The camera in today’s society is the symbol for communication; we can take pictures at any moment with our phones. We communicate through posting pictures on social media; I mean Instagram is solely based on pictorial documentation. Letters in the past documented and communicated thoughts just as photographs do today. The presence of the camera also adds another voyeuristic aspect to this photograph. The title berries, though seemingly unusual, could relate to the concept of fake blood, this being a staged history play. The play on history, especially that of art history is not a foreign concept amongst Dempsey’s predecessors, Cindy Sherman did a whole series of them titled “History Portraits, Old Masters.” Sherman explored the question of what image patterns the media employs for portraying femininity and how these images determine perceptions of women. At the same time, they deconstruct by humorous, ironic, and provocative means the traditional iconography of portraying women in the Western world and develop alternative images that postulate new forms of representation, which are at times aggressive and strident, at others subtle and devious. Other women such as Countess Castiglione and the Surrealist Claude Cahun discovered photography as a means of experiencing their ego in many different roles and exposing stereotype projections of femininity through masquerading. The variations on recognizable and identifiable images of the past presented by all these artists allow them to not only explore social themes but themes of gender.
From then until now Dempsey has expanded his oeuvre to incorporate videos and paintings in addition to photography. Unlike previously, he has now eliminated himself as subject, he steps behind the camera lending a voyeuristic eye to his evocative images. These photographs, videos, and paintings celebrate voyeurism as a reality of life and as a theme in art history. The visitor is placed in the position of voyeur, looking at women who masquerade in unfamiliar, often odd and mysterious landscapes. Though the women are nude or exposed, their sexuality is almost undermined by the strangeness of the settings they are placed in. These pieces create a push and pull with the viewer. At once we are intrigued as voyeurs and brought in by sensual bodies and yet we are cautious given the oddity of the scene as well as the physical distance to the subject. These women create a desire and fear; they are alien yet intimate, close but distant, filling the works with contradictions and dualism. These dualities explore the shared subconscious of humanity. Physical duality is evident in Stroboscope Still I as the women become near mirror images of each other. His interest in androgyny which was more so evident in his “Mutatio” exhibition slyly resurfaces here as well, with a testicular theme to highlight the opposition between female and male, the ultimate oppositional force. This is visible in Dream Sequence Halftone, Landing, and a bit more subtly in Masks II.
Hailing from the tradition of Marilyn Minter, Dream Sequence II Still II, originates from a short film projected on the wall next to Dream Sequence I. Both works show the transformation of women via face paint. This one however, using gold face paint and glitter, is reminiscent more so of royalty and beauty. It is less aggressive than its counterpart.
One of my favorite photographs, Dream Sequence Halftone is reminiscent of Titian’s and Girogione’s nudes which expose a single breast. However, the photograph which originates from the short film projected on the gallery back wall is much more powerful than the dream like and ephemeral nudes of the 16th century. The film begins with the viewer looking at a bird cage within which are two fake parakeets. Then the film takes us to the model which originally wears white and then transforms to wearing black and red as well as applying red face paint. White is usually associated with purity, peace, and innocence, while red and black are bold colors often representing death, war, love, blood, and in some cultures black even represents living. Face painting is a common theme among many cultures from indigenous tribes in Africa to the Native American tribes of the Americas. The art of transforming ourselves with make-up and masks is a universal phenomenon. Before we sought to vent our artistic impulse on a cave wall, we painted on our faces and bodies. The people indigenous to the Amazon region believed that this power to change ourselves demonstrates our humanity and sets ourselves apart from the world of the animals. The shapes and colors convey a strong bond and meaning amongst people who have a face painting traditions. They are a connection to their past and carry a very strong cultural meaning in their lives. In ancient times, only primary and locally available colors like red, blue, yellow or white were used. Painting a face is an art, perhaps the very first art, going back to the origins of human culture. Colors in Native American culture have special significance. Red is a violent color; it is the color of war. Strangely enough black, which is considered to be an inauspicious color in most cultures, is the color of ‘living’, worn on the face during war preparations. White predictably is the color of peace. If we apply that information to the photograph and the short film, this woman prepares herself to be a warrior. Her pose is strong and defiant, having a spread gait with black balloons dangling between her legs. If we take the black color as a symbol for life, the black balloons which echo testicles could be a representation that life is found within (i.e. the sperm being the bearer of life). The exposed breasts call to the ancient notions of fertility as well as beauty. Dempsey filled the short film and photograph with more metaphors and oppositions than there is space for me to write about. It is a surprisingly clever and creative projection of what we understand as gender, as masculine/feminine, as beautiful.
This exhibition is presented in collaboration with creem magazine. Creem magazine is an edgy and avant-garde magazine which features artistic fashion photography, often times bordering on the concepts of androgyny just like Dempsey. http://creemmag.com/
October 10 – November 7
Opening Reception, October 10, 6-8 p.m.
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 7pm and by appointment
Address: 48 Orchard Street New York, NY 10002
Phone +1 212 966 5686
Fax: +1 212 966 5686