Whitehot Magazine

Dana Frankfort: Life and Death at OLYMPIA

 Dana Frankfort, Gold/Brown/Rose, 2023, oil on canvas on panel, 48 48 inches


By EDWARD WAISNIS April 7, 2024

“Life and Death,” Dana Frankfort’s exhibition of eleven canvases (three in the window space and eight in the gallery proper) takes its title from a Malcolm Morley quotation that postulates painting as the sine non qua of existence: 

Each brushstroke is a matter of life and death. It's a matter of identity, which I'm evolving as I go along.

Through each painting, there's a riddle. I discover the riddle through doing the painting.

The declaration ‘you and I are earth’ appears scrawled across three of the works here. “You & I Are Earth”, “You and I are Earth II” and “You and I are Earth (Large) that seem to speak to another sentiment entirely, deviating from the painted text. Focusing on the equation that we, collectively, originated from, and are connected to, the planet, but, as in Frankfort’s practice, where she blankets the ascribed passage, we no not the why and wherefore of our beginnings. Not meaning to put too fine a point on the legends occurring throughout Frankfort’s work–others making an appearance in the present outing: “Welcome my Friends” and “Signs”, both the titles of the respective works that they appear in–because the letter-forms are merely another medium relied on by the artist, specifically here as the underlying structure that she then obscures with classic layering techniques. 

 Dana Frankfort, Grey/Purple, 2023, oil on canvas on panel, 48 x 48 inches

Frankfort’s work, on one level, can be viewed as a resurgence of atavistic provisional painting that we last saw in the 1990s, when there was a lame attempts to label such work as Zombie abstraction. This time around the cultural moment has become a perfect fit for obfuscation and the embrace of nominalism.

The largest of the You and I are Earth paintings, “You and I are Earth (Large)”, 2023 utilizes a lovely palette of peach and pink mixed into a white haze that resolves in undulating waves. Reminiscent, in one sense, of  the tactic of applying soap to a closed shop window, there is the same smeariness. A topically reflective reference to our post-Covid streetscapes (coincidently this state of commercial real estate has acted as an opportunity for up-and-coming galleries to occupy–fraught choice of term is purposeful–discarded spaces, hence, in part, the surge of new gallery districts in these locales) or the mere outcome of the painter’s gesture? The fume is applied over a dark purple (Prussian blue?) field. The message–once absorbed–comes across as less terrestrial, more cosmic, as in: we are the stuff of stardust. More terrestrial than terra firma. It is this slippage that brings the visual buzz.


Dana Frankfort, Welcome My Friends, 2024, oil on canvas on panel, 72 x 78 x 1.5 inches

The range of patination Frankfort summons goes from the sublime, as above, to the strident, to the downright grungy. This latter aspect is evident in “Brown/Pink/White”, 2023, where the trident of pigments has been virtually scrubbed into the burlap surface of this diminutive work, centering a a gaping swath of darkness resembling the ominous maw of a cave. The inflection of a few touches of rose and cerulean, mostly in the upper right corner, foretell a haven in close proximity.

A couple of other paintings in the show, “Grey/Purple/White”, 2023 and “Open”, 2024, utilize burlap supports as well.  Both lean on widely different light airy arrangements of slathered color. This brings out the alligator texture inherent to the coarseness of the burlap, aided by considered accumulations of pigment. 

While “Gold/Brown/Rose”, 2023, a four foot square canvas, returns to the sludge of “Brown/Pink/White”. Rendering what appears to be a mound, or hillside, with swaths of light, provided by the passages of lustrous pay-dirt, and possibly dense foliage coming through the mud and clotting. The resemblance to the work of Per Kirkeby is striking and, hence, puts this painting in the realm of outlier here. It is joined by its twin, “Grey/Purple”, 2023, hung side-by-side. They play off one another well. And enhance the nordic chromatic sensibility they share. Over a wash of white reticent attempts at letter forms are scrawled (is that graphite, crayon?) in a manner that recalls the hand of Cy Twombly. But, what does it convey (US)? What can only be described as a chunk of underpainting that’s been left in the lower right corner hints, perhaps, at a rubble rustic foundation. The edges of this particular work reveal the deposits of long-term investment in its creation.Together the two paintings put one in the brambles, or maybe in the underbrush beside a major highway. There is that sort of prickliness that the other works in the show do not share.

  Dana Frankfort, You and I are Earth (Large), 2023, oil on linen, 60 x 72 x 1.5 inches

The two other ‘You and I are Earth’ works–“You & I Are Earth” and “You and I are Earth II”, both 2024–measuring 16 x 20 and 18 x 24 inches, respectively, are more shrill in allowing their statements to stand in a starker light. Akin to protest placards, their statements emblazoned against gloaming grounds of deep cadmium and mauve. With the sophomore version completed by a thin scrawl, laid over the central call, beseechingly declaiming the title of the exhibition. Here the painted work of Réne Richard is evoked, intentionally, or not. 

Frankfort’s use of text runs a gamut of strategies seen before. From those utilized by Picabia through Mel Bochner to the aforementioned Réne Ricard. Christopher Wool and Deborah Kass, though evident in the mix, with their connection to Pop, fall to the opposite leanings followed here. Though Frankfort did lean away from her AbEx groundings a few years back, engaging in chromatic buoyancy, recalling the halcyon days of the 1960s, from what can be seen on Houston’s Inman Gallery website, specifically work shown in exhibitions from the twenty teens. Still, even then, her wistfulness leans to the peak period of Art Informel, complete with evocation of our uneasy times, just as that movement reverberated the stress of the post-WWII era. 

 Dana Frankfort, You and I are Earth II, 2024, oil on canvas on panel, 18 x 24 x 1 inches

Commenting indirectly on global warming effects on the environment, and referring to where she lives and works, Frankfort has stated: “Houston is ‘fog city’, semi-tropical, heavy air, and always wet.”. And commented that as she drives around the city, she sees paintings through her windshield. Evidence of the topicality of these paintings was brought home, literally, when I happened upon a graffitied van parked in front of the library in an adjacent neighborhood days after I had seen the exhibition. The panels festooned with blocks and patches of contrasting colors immediately reminded me of Frankfort’s paintings. 

The showstopper that is “Welcome My Friends”, 2024, 72 x 78 inches (making it the largest work in the show) and centrally installed, depends on washes of near-fluorescent fascia and orange over the interlaced verbiage put down in a shimmery fashion. The message is obscured and enraptured, the end result of which is viewer engagement and stimulation. A scumbled passage of mint in the upper right puts one in the foreground weeds, so to speak, looking to the beyond. 

Installation view 1, Dana Frankfort, Life and Death, Olympia, NY

Turning back to the Morley quote, I posit that the second half, about how the painter discovers the painting by working through a riddle, is the Yang to the Yin of confronting existence. In the same way that text is the armature on which Frankfort plays out the qualities of color and substance, the process itself holds the key, and the satisfaction (for both the artist and the viewer), rather than the equation.


Van on street 

Hailing from Texas, where she presently lives works and teaches, Frankfort has gathered experience and influence by way of a storied track (Yale grad school, Skohegan and Yaddo residencies, Guggenheim fellowship, etc.) that while supporting her stylistic, technical  and spiritual choices, belies the freshness of her work. Appearing to be the output of a young painter, in part because there is the whiff of new discovery about her, while, in fact, she is a perfect candidate for a mid-career museum survey.

Credit must be given to gallerist Ali Rossi whose program aimed at “dismantling the cis-male centric art canon” for her eye in mounting this exhibition that will stand as a high in the early career of this nugget of a space.

Dana Frankfort: Life and Death at OLYMPIA is on view February 10 through March 23, 2024. WM 


Edward Waisnis

Edward Waisnis is an artist and filmmaker. Additionally, he is the Producer of two Quay Brothers films, Through the Weeping Glass and Unmistaken Hands, as well as having overseen the facilitation of their 2012 MoMA retrospective. His writing has appeared in Art New England, COVER, ARTextreme and STROLL.

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