Michael Dee: Some Candy Talking and the Sound of Speed
January 18 - February 28, 2014
Garboushian Gallery, Beverly Hills
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, MAR. 7, 2014
Michael Dee’s most recent exhibition, the sparkling, meticulous, and confounding Some Candy Talking and the Sound of Speed at Garboushian Gallery, unfolds sort of like a riddle; a conceptually advanced, optically charged, post-modern version of a kids’ joke along the lines of “Q: What do fish and maps have in common? A: They both have scales!” Except here it’s more like “Q: What do flattened bullets, poisonous botanicals, melted plastic stars, and a broken sound barrier have in common? A: Counterintuitive but indelible fractal-based formal similarities that speak to the fundamental underlying patterns of the universe!” While not exactly a laugh line -- though there is plenty of humor on offer as well -- the moment at which the conversation between the seemingly disparate elements of this exhibition snaps into focus is one of joy and discovery, and attends a satisfaction not unlike solving a puzzle. And it’s that “A-ha!” moment which in a sense is the deeper subject of the exhibition. Besides the special formal qualities of the images in the subseries and the specific aspects they share, the artist places a value on such discoveries existing in the world for the noticing.
Though Dee’s practice has always been multivalent, with concurrent interests in drawing, sculpture, and music being pursued in quick succession, the interrelationships between the sets of work are not immediately apparent in their aesthetics. The Star sculptures of various color and size profiles which he has been making since 2008 are the most flamboyant works. Made of clear, colored plastic drinking cups which Dee melts end to end, display stalk-like tendrils which radiate out from the center like shells of tiny asteroids or sea anemones. They are crystalline and rough, seeming organic only in their lack of smooth precision and the approximate nature of their symmetry. Some hang from wires, delicate; some sit on tabletops, intimate. Some are perched on lightbox platforms like Koons’ vacuum cleaners except they are nothing like that.
The graphite on paper drawings (most from 2011) such as 147 Grain (bullet series) and St. John’s Wort 3 (flower series) are, by contrast, polite and earnest in their rendering, unapologetically the result of studious attention, patient skill, and with a bare minimum of the moderate ironic stance toward materials expressed in the sculptures. But there is still a twist. What appears to be a blossom is in fact the smashed hull of a bullet that has found its mark. What appears to be a florid botanical is a plant with the power to both soothe and kill. Spend enough time wandering through the installation, and one might happen upon a view of the installation in which the flower drawing and the star sculptures are seen together and the fractal, unfurled attributes they share reveal themselves. The suite depicting views of jets breaking the sound barrier are unavoidably phallic, as their sleek thrusts emerges from a cloud of fuel or dust. The intentions for these images are most obvious in Pinup, in which a jet in flight is positioned above a fetching nude. The whole exhibition is about things that should not go together, going together nonetheless. Hard and soft, fast and slow, sex and machine, sense and nonsense, sound and static, gesture and obsession, drugs, numbness, dumb-ness, contrarianism, nostalgia.
Now, the idea of things looking or being alike that ought not to is not new in visual art. But what is fresh and satisfying about Dee’s take on that script is a) the particular choices in extremes of content he chooses to bring together; and b) the exceptional patience and craftsmanship which he displays in setting up the payoff. For this to work, the artist must create real surprises, and that can mean running the risk that not everyone will get it; because to be really good, it can’t be obvious. But what’s so compelling about this work is that while getting it makes it better, the individual pieces, even if they never fully explain themselves, are each so lovely and strange that it’s fine either way.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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