A heart. A bathrobe. A Greek statue.
Pretty simple objects for the large job of redefining the notion of art in the latter half of the 20th century. But Jim Dine is hardly a student of conventional wisdom: The artist once performed in the basement of a New York church by going onstage wearing a painter's smock, scribbling "I love what I'm doing, HELP" across a large canvas, then drinking from a glass of what appeared to be red paint, pouring the rest over his head, then jumping crown first through the very same canvas he had just painted.
Dine is one of those artists who is continually defined by what his art doesn't represent rather than what it does. His early works, especially his performance "happenings," were witty manifestos designed to separate himself from the action painting and abstract expressionists that came before him by offering literal interpretations of their erudite metaphors.
His use of popular images -- such as the bathrobe and the heart -- beginning in the '60s and early '70s was infused with personal and emotional meanings to disassociate these works from the commercial objectivity found among the works of the pop artists.
When the rest of the avant-garde were turning their backs to the canon of Western art, Dine headed right for it by adopting and assimilating one of the most classical and famous works in Western art -- Venus de Milo -- into his paintings and sculpture.
And while many artists explicitly use each new piece of individual art to present a new psychological or political concern -- this one is about my relationship with my father, this one is about my issues with gender, this one with the floods in Indochina -- the solitary Dine plugs away with his same images, yet manages to inject in each new painting of a robe or a statue or a heart a current barometer reading of the storm of his own psyche.
"Monument to the Human Condition," Dine's new exhibition at the Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale, consists of 10 new paintings and 12 sculptures taken from the totality of his artistic career beginning in the 1960s. Though labeled as a sculpture "retrospective," the exhibit isn't quite as comprehensive as a retrospective should be. The number of objects and scope of the project are somewhat limited by the inherent constraints of a commercial space compared with a museum. Given this, however, the exhibit gives a pleasant and informative glimpse into Dine's work in sculpture as well as showing the wide and varied strains that have held such a complex career together.
The three dominating images of Dine's work -- heart, bathrobe, Greek statue -- work as a simple but effective vehicle for tying together the heavily personal and emotional strands of Dine's career. The robe is an empty shell of a male figure; the Venus de Milo is an armless figure of womanly beauty minus the clothing, and, in Dine's work, minus the head. And the heart is at once a positive and negative image, a symbol of the self and a symbol of the world outside the self, the inherent power of human emotion and the painful limitations of it, as well. The three images weave their way snakelike through the bulk of the exhibit
The most important sculptural work in the show is also the only one not for sale. Taken from Dine's personal collection, Nancy and I at Ithaca is a large straw heart that Dine constructed in the mid-'60s. Beginning with a heart made of sheet metal, Dine later added the hay to create an impermanent look that contrasts with its strong structure. The piece also marked the beginning of Dine's obsession with the heart, which remains the single image most associated with his painting and sculpture. Dine is to the heart as Warhol is to the soup can.
"It's everything, really," Dine would later confess in an interview about his use of the image. "A vagina, an ass; it's pretty basic stuff."
Dine adopted the image of the robe from a New York Times advertisement he came across in the early 1960s. To him, the image was a perfect way to paint emotional self-portraits without having to draw his own face and form.
"I looked like I was inside it, but there was nobody in it," Dine would state about the original image of the robe. And, while he is sometimes criticized for just churning out the bathrobes like a Warhol screen print, the fact is that each painting is actually carefully and individually treated and conceived. Even the heart paintings, which have been seen anywhere from tee shirts to wine bottles to greeting cards, show individual associations with varied themes and moods. Dream (Pompeii) takes on a dark and sinister tone, while Head on the Wall contains the menacing yet somewhat hidden shadow of a human skull.
Several other pieces relate to Dine's use of readymade objects, especially in his early career. Red Axe (1965) is an elongated ax painted red and resting almost parallel to the ground. Harvest (1984) shows a handful of brightly painted farm tools sticking out of the ground with various artistic objects -- the head of a sphinx, a bust of Nefertiti, a 1940s cartoon head -- growing out of their handles. The use of these wasn't a nod to the Dadaists but rather a way to show reverence for handmade objects such as tools and farm instruments.
Despite his work in painting, sculpture, assemblage, drawing, printmaking and performance art, Dine will always be known as a painter of hearts and robes. But, for him, such classification is okay. Rather than give way to any artistic style or trend that comes his way, Dine's work shows how a use of even the most common objects can satisfy the artist's desire to bare his soul.
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