Visual Arts

John Dawson captures essence instead of physicality in “Dawson: Thirty Years” at Mesa Contemporary Arts

If I were the sitter for the portrait Martha, I'd hate John Dawson. Martha is one of the most compelling paintings showing at the Mesa Contemporary Arts exhibition "Dawson: Thirty Years."

And she looks like hell.

Dawson's portraits have a no-mercy, take-no-prisoners attitude. But it's within these harsh paintings that Dawson truly shines.

Portraiture is nothing new in art. The earliest surviving ones date all the way back to the first century. Capturing the external and internal likeness of the subject has always been the point. And, being such an elderly genre, portrait making has experienced a flux of strategies. Pick up a 19th-century painting of Napoleon by David and the guy is statuesque and beautiful. Visually, it's a big, fat lie, but it's a dead ringer for his ego. On the other hand, a self-portrait by 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt is so physically on point, you can count the wrinkles in his cheeks.

In recent decades, artists like Alice Neel and Lucien Freud have chosen to wiggle the physical attributes in ways that reveal the sitter's inner landscape. Dawson relishes the approach, heavily editing visual elements in an effort to expose the personality.

Dawson has tackled other subject matter during his career, which began with a Master of Fine Arts degree from Arizona State in 1974. He's had more than 60 solo exhibitions across the country, giving him plenty of time to experiment. But his portraits dominate. Words like "psychological, insightful, and personal" always pop up in descriptions of his work. And in this show, you can see why. Dawson has an innate ability to visually capture quirks, curiosities, and unknowns about his subjects.

As for Martha, she's a big woman who fills almost the entire surface of the painting. Her beige dress dominates the lower three-fourths of the surface, but there's no distinction in her body's contours. She's just a mass of light brushstrokes. Around her overflowing neck and double chin is a collar — barely sketched in. Quick and scratchy marks outline her head, and you can just make out the shape of her curly short hair. She lacks eyes and one gaping nostril denotes her nose. Her mouth, the most developed feature, is a set of pretty crimson lips; separated to reveal jagged teeth. With all the missing parts, she looks deformed, monstrous, and ugly.

But I didn't look away in disgust. Instead, I was strangely attracted to Martha and I could have stared at her for hours. During the time I had with her, I was filling in her absent features, trying to create a finished portrait in my mind. But Martha, trapped in an eternal state of incompletion, changed every time I looked at her.

In this work, as well as others, Dawson deliberately erases certain elements of the subject's physical features. Here, the visual gaps make it more about a transient feeling of Martha rather than the permanent look of Martha. It's not exactly fun to experience this feeling — it's negative, bitter and yucky. But it was hard to walk away. Martha acts as an outlet — a release for the internal ugliness I often feel.

The show includes more psychologically assaulting works like Martha. Others are less visceral, but they have their own complexities.

Anatomy of a Painting: A Glass Darkly is way more action-packed. On a large wood panel, Dawson renders several portraits of a middle-aged man. The slight guy has a thick head of messy, short hair and wears a black turtleneck. A finished painting, delineated by its own wood frame, is mounted onto the piece. It shows the man leaning forward, resting his weight on a bent elbow. A frenzied surface filled with sketches of him in different poses surrounds the painting, and a drawing of a skeleton, hunched in a similar fashion to the man, broods over the activity.

Each sketch is a record of a particular moment. Scrawled randomly across the surface, these happenings are non-linear. It's merely a man's erratic movement through time, and some moments are clearer than others. But all the while, Death waits patiently, knowing the flurry of mortality will ultimately lead to him. It's a portrait of the constant go go go of everyday life — with only the occasional breather — before you die. It's easy to relate to this one.

In Ingres Puzzle, Dawson re-creates a painting by a 19th-century French artist, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. The 1832 work, called Louis-François Bertin, hangs in the Louvre today. It's a portrait of Bertin, a successful newspaperman of the time. In it, he sits in a wood chair against a simple yellow backdrop. He's a portly fellow, clad in a heavy coat and vest. His massive shoulders hunch over as his thick arms round outward. A meaty hand grasps each thigh. His face is flat, his nose is narrow and he has a head of white, wispy hair. With a thin straight line for a mouth, he menacingly arches one spindly eyebrow. In short, he looks like a surly son of a bitch.

Dawson re-creates that portrait and stays true to its original composition. But he takes some liberties with his version. He splits the work into two sections with a jagged line, which curves and cuts, tracing the edge of an imaginary jigsaw puzzle. The lower half copies the original, but Dawson's brushwork is dramatically looser. It's the top half where things get pretty nuts. The precision seen in the lower part melts away into Dawson's sketchy style. Half of the sitter's face is barely rendered with a few squiggles and smudges. But the real surprise is the backdrop. Behind the seated man is a chaotic tangle of tropical foliage with macaws and toucans peeking out among the leaves.

The painting is a puzzle in itself — it's tough to know exactly what Dawson is going for. Dawson and Ingres both work with portraiture. But while Ingres is painstakingly committed to physical accuracy, Dawson focuses on the action of painting. His brushstrokes emote energy and movement. Ingres' painting is about the sitter while Dawson's work is about the artist. I wonder: Is it what Dawson imagines Ingres might have painted had he the choice? Is it Dawson's insight into the mind of an artist alive during a time of stricter painting principles? It's a complex and compelling piece with a lot of guesswork.

Though my thoughts were certainly provoked by the depth of these pieces, it was work like Martha that stood out. When Dawson cuts the chaos and focuses on one simple figure, he's most effective. It's like a karate chop to your consciousness that will leave you mesmerized.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi