Peter Schjeldahl > Article: Where the Wild Things Are

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Where the Wild Things Are

    Jane Dickson knows things. Special things. Odd particulars. Things pertaining to the United States in the late evening of the 20th century. They are wild things for the most part, though couched in a superficially reassuring art style. Dickson's style reassures in two ways. First, her generalized renderings and visible, often decorative technique can feel as familiar as popular music. She graces her figures with a speaking poetry of gesture and takes her decorative effects to nth degrees (as in painting on black grounds or in exaggeraing the piquant roughness of canvas by substituting nubbly carpet material), but a viewer's cozy sense of being addressed in a visual common language remains. Second, Dickson's style has a fictional aura that promises carefree enjoyment of sensational subject matter. "Voyeuristic" is a word brought to mind by her window and bird's-eye views. "Cinematic" is another. The look of Dickson's pictures incites the delicious suspension of moral responsibility for which we still line up, money in hand, at movie theaters.

    Dickson's art will seem least remarkable to people who have not lived very much. The more you know of life, the more you know that Jane Dickson knows things you don't. When I first saw her paintings of demolition derbies, I had never attended a demolition derby. (Incidentally, that was one of the most enchanting painting exhibitions of the 1980s, and one of the worst times in terms of fashion. In 1988 painting was dead again. No one knew what to do with the work, which passed in what seemed to be general torpor. When it is mentioned today, any number of New Yorkers will say - as if surprised to learn that anyone else saw it - "Oh yes, I loved that show!") Later I went to a derby in Upstate New York. It was a sophisticating experience.

    A gloomily lighted, reeking, dirty ballet of noisy doom, the demolition derby is an American form of bullfighting in which the deft matador and the death-appointed bull are one - and one of many, in a democratric free-for-all. The cars seem alive, either as cartoonish creatures with wills of their own or as expessive masks or clothing of the drivers. Feelings of identification flow toward the laboring, raging, perishing sheet-metal beasts. So it seemed to me. I had had no idea. How corny and crass, I though: smashing up cars. In the muddy night of the Delaware County Fairground I felt a complicated charge of violence and finesse, deperation, gallantry - and potlatch, the ritual of magnificent waste brought to bear on the main fetish of American civilization. It was all a bit silly, as well, in the American vein that forbids us to admit to taking anything altogether seriously. Some spectators seemed to feel obliged to whoop and holler. Most watched in strangely intent stillness. I understood the demolition derby. I felt fated, almost condemned, to understanding it by the fact of being an American.

    Dickson's demolition derby paintings communicate hardly anything of what I just wrote. The paintings give you credit for knowing that stuff already - or else, amounting to the same thing, they respect the principled American naivete about things that are to be comprehended not analytically but in being there. The paintings disdain to educate you in the ovious, even where the obvious is profound. Dickson depicted aspects of the derby that in real occurrence go by too fast or are too subtle to be grasped: flashing sensations that elude the eye and would be lost, as well, to the indiscriminate gaze of a camera. I think of the ravishing Pierrot, in which a crippled sedan looms brutally in dusty air that turns background floodlights citron. Smears of light on the car's body glow pale crimson. The picture is almost painfully exciting. It nails a moment of illumination (comprising sight, sound, and smell) and something like panic, an instant of helpless beholding that cannot be mastered because it means both too little and too much.

    Dickson is often called a social realist. It won't do. Both words of the phrase are apt for her art as far as they go, but it's not far enough. The phrase suggests an agreement on what "society" and "reality" are, and Dickson is nothing if not a messenger bearing the news that those concepts, among others with which we presume to subdue the unruly world, have imploded. We command no secure boundary between the out-there of the world and the in-here of ourselves, she tells us. We are awash in a symbiotic soup and cannot be relied on to tell the social from the psychological, the political from the personal, or even the real from the imagined - except in moments of vision loaded with the unmistakable pain that announces the rupture of a defensive illusion. Dickson is matter-of-fact about all this, as if to say: get used to it. To name her style would require recourse to the prefix meaning "beside" or "beyond": para-social para-realism. But let's not name it at all. The less we have on our busy minds when confronting this art, the better.

    You must sense and feel in front of Dickson's pictures because you will not be able usefully to do anything else, such as think. She instinctively opts for subjects and scenes in whose perception the mind is riveted, unbalanced, thrown back on itself, blasted. The city is always a parade of such scenes for anyone brave or foolish enough to adopt the role of spectator. Since Edgar Allan Poe (in his story The Man of the Crowd) and expecially Charles Baudelaire, the city has been an arena where adventurous spirits test the human capacity to confront and absorb reality at its most intense and irrational. Dickson is heir to this tradition. She is an antenna of our species set in the heart of urban darkness - in her case Times Square, only the most famous of the many sites constituting that heart - and lately in the heart of the heart - the interchangeable strip joints and peep shows that are the economic engine and moral maelstrom of sin zones everywhere. Do not look for moralizing commentary in Dickson's work. You can provide that in the comfort of your own sheltered life, for all the good it will do you. Look rather for comfortless truth.

    That truth is the symbiotic soup, never more dramatically expressed than in Dickson's great public installation work on 42nd Street last year: a pornographic video parlor transformed into a fanciful bridal shop. Backlit paintings on vellum of contented brides filled the windows. Through peepholes in the locked front door one could see, rotating soundlessly on a mezzanine, a transparent bridal gown that threw off glints of chemical-looking color. This work posed questions: Do prostitutes dream of matrimony? Are brides in some sense prostitutes? The questions did not sit still for answers. They collided in the mind, demolition-derby style. Nothing could have been more remote from contemplative "art space." For one thing, the piece obliged a viewer to do what street smarts advise you not to do around Times Square: lose sight of what is behind you. To be invaded by a silent phantasmagoria of romance in that heartless, loud, dangerous circumstance was a nervewracking epiphany, a concentrated dose of the acrid human mystery of cities. It made me forget that I ever thought I knew anything. It is not the artist's job to moralize. It is the artist's job to show honestly what moralizing, among other of our impulses to make life tidy and manageable, is up against. Follow Jane Dickson into a peep show. She will be a sure and pitiless Vergil to your Dante. You will not see much of the customers. She is not terribly interested in them. You will see the women. More than that, you will see and be the women bodily, because absolute intensification of the bodily is what goes on in this particular circle of Hell. It would be nicely righteous to say that the women abandon their minds to perform in a purely mechanical manner for money - a deplorably degrading transaction for which the establishment and its patrons bear ultimate responsibility - but the truth seems inconveniently more complicated. The truth is a dance of submission and control - control through submission on the women's part. If the women's bodies become objects, they are objects of a special kind: cartoonish agents of archetypal power. Like demolition derby cars, they possess a sort of hideous nobility, a goddess aspect that is surely destructive of personality but inescapably actual.

    Dickson is modest and brave. In cCharlie Ahearn's at once delirious and exquisite video about her, Jane in Peep Land, she reenacts an image from one of her pictures: a woman leaning over the parapet of a building to observe a neon-lit street below (and just maybe to contemplate suicide). Dickson complains miserably as she assumes the pose. She is afraid of heights. (So am I. I know that awful feeling, as if all the strength in my legs and lower body abruptly drained away.) But she does it for art. It is a small gesture with a lingering resonance. Like anything on videotape, the moment has a flat, banal, droning ordinariness. An ennui. (Such happens to be the dominant state of lives devoted to intensity, as Baudelaire understood and Dickson understands very well.) The crux of the event is precisely Dickson's fear. For her, we realize, fear and discomfort are practical guides. They alert her to what, in all the world, constitutes her subject matter. Anxiety is her workaday fulcrum for a balance between the in-here and the out-there - marking where a boundary would be if there were one, which there isn't. She nears the crisis of an artwork with the deliberation of the matador who, oriented by the rising graph of his own terror, performs as close as possible to the bull's horns.