By DAVID JAGER September 14, 2023
The unctuous and suavely self-assured booths of New York’s Armory Show, representing the absolute cream of the world’s blue-chip galleries, are rarely a site for provocation. Most artists represented here are known quantities, often with established careers if not museum retrospectives. If any of these artists had a ‘Success de Scandale’ at the start - dragging a soiled bed into a gallery or pickling a shark in formaldehyde- the secondary market has tamed even the most savage of them.
This is why it was such an awesome surprise to see the latest painting of Thomas Dillon, who hails from Scott Ogden’s ‘Shrine’ gallery in NYC. Dillon, who is self-taught, is a high-octane blast of painterly anarchy who is as inventive as he is hilariously disturbing. These frenetic canvases emit a visual frequency that screamed out over its high-toned neighbors, like suddenly hearing the Jesus Lizard blasting “Mistletoe” live over the Guarneri Quartet.
Dillon’s mainstay is portraiture, or rather subjects in the middle of exploding. Not people literally blowing up, but undergoing extreme psychic dislocation (or revelation). Some faces appear caught in the middle of peak states- terror, rage or ecstasy isn’t always clear- that suggest the reality shredding experience that comes from a blast of DMT. Others are near caricatures so accustomed to their distorted lives they cruise along in their own reality.
Dillon, who says he works intuitively from a “primal drive” that bypasses thinking entirely, uses lo fi and abject materials in his wet-on-wet paint application. He mostly uses house paints, some of them second hand or discarded, using a drip technique reminiscent of Pollock but adapted to completely different ends. He then smears, contours and attacks the wet surface with his fingers, or uses cardboard rolls, sticks and other implements. Every gesture seems intent on adding layers, movement and depth, creating another chthonic swirl in the vortex. Even so, human faces and presences are always present, if not palpable.
This is tricky line that Dillon negotiates so handily. He often places expressive eyes or features in the four-dimensional soup in such a way that you cannot help but be drawn to the face nearly buried inside the chaos. This is the case of ‘The Fool on the Hill (self Portrait)” which is utterly batshit but also grabs you with two reddish eyes and a red slash of a mouth that suggest poetic melancholy, an expression that says, “Ah well, such is life.” It’s the befuddlement of the figure sitting in the mayhem that makes the painting, well, poignant.
“Hard Candy”, is the largest piece, dominating the back wall of the booth like a blast from a bazooka. It shows two characters, one talking, the other listening, perhaps with some unease. It’s amazing their presence reads at all in the miasma of ochres, powder blues and greens, punctuated with judicious dashes of red. It should be an overworked tangle of color instead of a coherent composition. Okay, coherence is probably not the best word, but a palpable and powerful visual unity is established that belies its elements.
A grid of ten additional portraits is on the last wall. Some faces appear solitary and thoughtful, even calm, while others are alive with alien menace. Each one sits intensely in its own fraught psychic world. Some made me think of the gaping, mask like faces of James Ensor or the fleshy, smeared corporeality of Chaim Soutine. But you also think of those rapacious monsters drawn by Ed Roth, the veiny eyed frothy mouthed demons roaring and floppy tongued atop their muscle cars. Dillon gleefully mashes up culture and Kulchur, fusing the refined painterliness of figurative expressionism with unabashed American riot.
This is the beauty of Dillon’s rawness. He seems completely unafraid of his impulses and paints with zero regards for the conventional rules of art, which is one of the things Georg Baselitz once said he loved about the painting of AR Penck.
Shrine gallery has dealt in the murky aesthetic area known as outsider art, but Dillon doesn’t fit the bill. There is no sense that he is eccentrically disengaged from the history of painting, or devoted his own obsessive project, like Darger. In fact, he can be linked to an occult but very traceable trajectory through German neo expressionism, and back through figurative expressionists such as Jay Milder, Basquiat, De Kooning- and the action painters- and even back to early figurative abstractionist Hyman Bloom. There has always been an American school of figurative expressionism, where internal states erupt into paint in ways that escape description.
Dillon has done just that, blasting a hole between internal and external reality with sheer painterly force. It’s compelling as hell, and it feels free. You could argue it’s what painting is supposed to do. WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author