What’s So Funny
Brooklyn Fire Proof
Of the large supply of concrete subject matter available to contemporary painters, nothing is more literal than text. And no concrete form does a better job of transferring meaning to an image than a sequence of letters that make up a word. As a result, few painters bother looking to text as a point of departure en route to an investigation of formal and chromatic relationships. Dana Frankfort is a rare example of a painter willing to inhabit the inhospitable territory that would claim both words and gestural abstraction as its provenance.
What’s so Funny offers a generous supply of letters and brush strokes with plenty of territorial disputes on canvas between the two. In some cases the result is an unpredictably arresting and hard fought balance, while in others the impress of the text subjugates any formal complexity the painting might have offered.
The paintings in this show have a tendency to be standoffish when the text is dominant. This is evident in a group of seven smaller pieces on the far wall of the gallery from the door. As a group, the seven pieces have little in common other than size and the roman characters painted on their surfaces. Individual pieces such as “Untitled (Love)” and “Untitled (Say Something)” are lost in the confusion. Each has a difficult time asserting either their merits as individuals or as abstract, painterly explorations. Instead, they read like painterly orphans who rely on postured confidence and slack gazes where real confidence and accountability can’t be mustered.
According to Frankfort, “The words sometimes overtake the color. Sometimes the color overtakes the words.” While this is indeed the case, it should be added that her work is best when this vying for preeminence is both evenly matched and as close to a simultaneous occurrence as possible. As an abstract painting, “Untitled (YES)” is seductively unstable. It is sturdily girded throughout by wide brushstrokes that only partially conceal a tangle of black and radioactive green beneath. The prominence of the word “YES” in this case is in perfect balance with Frankfort’s painterly treatment of it. The formal spirit of the piece yields to the verbal center of the painting, and back and forth, neither side ever seizes control. After all the deliberating, “YES” as text is transformed from its initial verbal conceit to an affirmation of the painting itself.
Likewise, “Untitled, (EVEN)” engages the text and the space in the painting in a struggle for hegemony. The sharp black letters spelling out “EVEN” are backlit by yellow beams of canary yellow paint. It takes some time before those beams can be read as words themselves, and then some more time before they reveal the artist’s name, “DANA.” All the while, the letters are ensnared in jarring turns of paint that wind into the depths of the canvas, where the phrase “DANA EVEN” and “EVEN DANA” flips and stirs, building to an ambivalent but gratifying equilibrium. Another of these larger successful paintings, “Untitled (HALLELUIAH),” combines letters and abstract brushwork toward a more diffused, densely colored surface. The operative text in the painting, “HALLELUIAH,” is nearly obscured within a saturated field of tangerines and yellows. Like the other successes in the show, it benefits by coming to life slowly.
Someone once said that all dynamic forces are driving towards a win or lose conclusion, and that, because of this, ties are rare. Frankfort’s best paintings succeed in spite of this. They set a stage for battle where the result is designed to be a stalemate; for the formal end and the verbal end to balance themselves into a tie. When this occurs, her paintings offer a complex and fulfilling tension that is wholly satisfying and difficult to achieve.
That the show is called What’s so Funny is telling; it’s the same kind of cageyness that got her smaller paintings in trouble. Thankfully, though, the earnest complexity of her larger pieces takes charge of the show.