March 3 through March 31
By MARK BLOCH, March 2019
Mark Dagley has spent over forty years producing a far reaching, very American oeuvre that manifests a systematic approach to structure by using formulae, specific sets of material and color constraints.
He has inadvertently created a new kind of American Op Art after combining elements of the Washington Color School, the Radical Painting movement and Monochrome Painting with the French Supports/Surfaces movement, BMPT (a Paris-based mid-1960s group named for Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni), the German Zero Group and the Dutch modernist Theo van Doesburg's concept of Concrete Art.
Perhaps the idea of musical scores has also influenced his approach. Dagley’s creative output is not limited to fine art. He is also a guitarist, composer, audio engineer, videographer, and essayist and a publisher of art books and limited editions with his wife, author and actress Lauri Bortz. The couple co-founded the Abaton Book Company, a publishing house and music label they have been running together since 1997.
Regardless, evidence of Dagley’s unintentional Op and its aftermath via the intended eclecticism is provided by two significant and serious bodies of work by the multi-media artist currently on display at the two-story David Richard Gallery’s magnificent 121st Street space in Harlem. Make a pilgrimage to see this lucid dream of an exhibit on view through March 31st.
The gallery presents Mark Dagley: Neo-Op that features, downstairs, a mesmerizing group of his mandala-like “orbs” and other very pure exercises in geometrical abstraction from the mid to late '90s, that precede, upstairs, several more recent canvases, some completed as recently as last month, which provide a playful and whimsical break from the impressive but demanding rigor below.
Together, the double-edged Neo-Op offers several different series of work that range from the linear interplay of mathematic two dimensional progressions to enchanting surrealistic collections of phantasmagorical organic forms such as those in Untitled 19, a sampler of mystical cartoony shapes carefully executed in oil and acrylic pencil on canvas, creating a visual semiotic grab bag. Dagley has transformed a dedication to rigid training and experimentation with ideas and materials into a very successful, seductive and serious explosion of abstracted art signs and art symbols for human eyes to pore over with cogitation not necessarily required. The gallery has curated a ride through Dagley's ocular tunnel of love of systems and materials.
While still attending high school, Mark Dagley attended the Corcoran School of Art and Design in the nation’s capital during the spring and summer of 1975. “A great moment in painting had just passed in the city,” Dagley said in a 2008 interview with Don Voisine, president of the American Abstract Artists. “Morris Louis had only died a dozen years previously. Color Field was still very much in the air. It was the official party line.”
Dagley moved to Manhattan’s East Village in 1979, boarding an Amtrak train with his friend George Condo from Boston after they had collaborated musically at the Boston Museum School. Condo successfully showed his visual art with gallerist Pat Hearn, who both men knew from Boston, and then went to Europe. Dagley would eventually head to Cologne, Germany and elsewhere but first exhibited downtown, eventually with Tony Shafrazi in Soho in 1987. During the Neo-Geo New York moment, Dagley experimented with surfaces, polishes, varnishes, buffing and sanding, wanting to create something reminiscent of “a piece of lacquered furniture. I craved a California fetish finish.”
Another of his desires was to create work “that was informed by classic geometric painting. Most importantly, it could not look the least bit cynical. This was a tall order,” as was wanting an impersonal appearance in his work—but to achieve it by hand.
He reduced his palette to red, yellow, blue, black and white, which, he sighed, “began to look like Mondrian knock-offs.” He began a series of paintings based on systems called Primary Sequences. His one-point perspective line paintings in primary colors accidentally created unintended optical effects. Next, his early Washington D.C. training came in handy as he turned his attention to the dead center of a square canvas, just as Dagley has always worked from a spot smack dab in the middle of a Venn Diagram between seeing and thinking.
Serial explorations in primary colors, lush finishes, stripped down structures and orderly but painterly unprimed surfaces, have given Dagley’s career the appearance of a circuitous path with successive changes in approach and materials reinforcing that perception. The categorization of his work has, up until now, been more “post” than “neo,” due to the D.C. Color School’s influence on his artistic development. So previous work could be called post-Color Field or post-Monochrome. Then several of Dagley’s paintings were included in the exhibition Post-Hypnotic, which traveled the country from 1999-2001. The catalogue featured Dagley’s 1996 image Primary Color Vortex (Red, Yellow, Blue Dot Painting) on the cover. That piece and two other memorable “vortex” works appear here.
Finally, his time in Europe in the 1990s, where he was exposed to the Supports/Surfaces movement, has led to his work sometimes being referred to as Post-Structural.
But keeping with the artist’s desire to remain in the moment, or a step ahead, and his unique application of the downstairs portion of this show upon the imaginative, looser work upstairs, has resulted in this veteran abstract gallery's moniker for this work: Neo Op.
A tucked-away 1994 work called Untitled (Blue Triangles) utilizing a formal progression of triangles seems to have provided the path from his past “Post-” period to where the gallery has declared Dagley is now—more “Neo-.” A 1996 work, Star Shapes, might be seen as foreshadowing Dagley’s current work upstairs. He used electrical tape on a hand printed linocut on canvas to literally and figuratively connect dots that overlay a matrix of overlapping circles. This early, almost awkward depiction of colliding rote and random worlds points to Dagley’s eventual achievement that both beckons scientific studies hung nearby and anticipates the uninhibited explorations on the David Richard Gallery’s second floor.
But first, his vortex series that put the Op in Neo-Op, demands a look from both near and far. Primary Color Vortex is dated 1996. A black and white version was next, dated 2000-2006. Then, Secondary Value Vortex, 2007-2014. These seemingly impossible, very handmade works were created using strict rules and systems to solve problems Dagley depicted first linearly with graphite and then filled in painstakingly in disciplined sessions that he undertook in limited bursts to preserve his sanity and eyesight. The well-earned Op Art results, though only a by-product of the rules of his approach, are astounding and deserve to be seen in person not only because of the games they play in the viewer’s mind but because it becomes increasingly apparent what Dagley is up to.
Next, in 1997, he executed the curved Self-Generating Orb 1, followed by another in ‘99 (that rotated the other way) with the sub-title “Saturation Point”. His Blue Orb in ‘97 in pigment on paper then begins the one point perspective idea experimented with, in a myriad of examples seen in this show, that hit visitors between the eyes when one enters the ground floor of the David Richard space. I couldn’t help but think of psychedelic posters that hung in Spencer’s Gifts shops in shopping malls in the early 1970s. At that time, mind-blowing Op Art was all the rage and machines cranked out product for the youth of the Western world.
A close reading of all of Dagley’s work, often on unprimed canvas, reveal both his formula-oriented approach but also portend the spellbinding caprice upstairs with painterly, imprecise edges, human marks and smudges and, in one “orb” piece, even backgrounds of random lines that could be considered scribbles. But because the foregrounds of these works feel almost machine made (think Spirograph), they are balanced with a distinctive, human feel.
Upstairs, a different kind of fun kicks in. It is as if suddenly an uncharacteristic looseness prevails, a rebellion against what it must have required to achieve the scientific precision of the ground floor work. Phalanx from 2009, in blue acrylic against a blue background is a series of horizontal “shards” or “'chain-linked lozenges” labeled by the artist and the gallery in their press-release. I saw them as quirky, alien Backgammon boards gone awry. A second blue example from 2010 is stacked vertically, while a 2011 work called Spectral Diamond Field also employs these forms, as do other works, sometimes elongated, sometimes dislodged or about to spin, with Orange and Bronze Polygon Chain and the aforementioned Phalanx the purest examples.
But these pointy diamond-esque shards are only one variety of many geometric elements Dagley employs in this more recent work. Cannonball, from 2011, for instance, is about stripes. Death of Mary Meyer, from 2013, combines stripes and circles. Somehow all of the random shapes that emerged downstairs from Dagley’s math-inspired rules are back, but with user-friendly familiarity.
A work called Quadrifolia (2011) is my favorite. As seen in other pieces, tiny Duchampian spirals recalling Roto-reliefs stack themselves up into a zipper shape which then hovers over four rich Arp-like forms here that, in turn, obscure a rainbow of curvy, angular flames. These many, busy layers of conflicting activity, somehow, avoid confusion to conjure up a pleasing stasis.
Finally, Loudmouth Baby (2010) and Oblivion Express, curiously dated 2009-2019, are the culmination of everything discussed above and more. They are fearless, “kitchen sink” approaches to composition, throwing every chop that Dagley's got into the mix, with a faint membrane of his lingering, sensible, technical program from the bottom floor holding things together. The artist’s suspicious relationship with chaos and order creates a tension here that should go even further in his next body of work, if only I could imagine it. Somehow, I think Mr. Dagley will. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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