DANIEL DOUKE Bytes of Reality
CROCKER ART MUSEUM, SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
MARCH 26 – JULY 17, 2011
This exhibition of 24 works (all completed since 2000) is the first museum exhibition of Daniel Douke, who has quietly left his earlier hyperrealism (also called photorealism) to become a painter/sculptor bent on meticulously mimicking an object down to its dents. By collapsing the boundaries between painting and sculpture as well as by scrutinizing familiar objects, Douke stakes out his own, very particular territory—an open-ended terrain which is bordered on three sides by Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp; Vija Celmins and Jasper Johns; and Larry Bell and John McCracken. Five years younger than Celmins, the youngest of this group, it is in this family of artists that Douke belongs as well as speaks to through his art. His boxes hold their own in a lively dialogue with the trompe l’oeil group of 19th century blackboard tablets that Celmins showed in New York in May – June 2010. While her beautifully astringent evocations of nothingness are based on a slate wiped clean, Douke examines throwaway objects whose only purpose is to hold and protect something that gratifies the cravings of the consumer.
Like Johns, Douke is interested in things. In 1977, he made his first hybrid paintings replicating cardboard boxes for motor oil and foodstuffs, such as breakfast cereal. These are objects whose real life counterparts are supposed to be thrown away, after their contents are consumed: cheap, durable and destined for the garbage dump, full of wares meant to turn to shit of one form or another. The degree of exactitude that he was able to achieve in these works is mind-boggling, and since then he has only gotten better. Faithfulness and devotion to the disposable and overlooked become the means by which he questions what his fellow consumers believe in.
Douke’s project is to create a replica so exact and flawless that one would be unable to tell the differences between the real object and the painting. And yet, he is not attempting to fool us as much as he is trying to prod our consciousness toward the myriad distinctions that can be made when looking at the most ordinary, throwaway things. A cardboard box is a container, something waiting to be torn apart, and turned to waste: it is a barrier between the consumer and the object of desire. One key to Douke’s preoccupation is that each hybrid painting is based on a specific box, cardboard mailer, or, more recently, rural mailboxes that the artist saw while driving to Marfa, Texas, where Donald Judd lived and worked. (These and other recent works can be seen in his exhibition at Peter Mendenhall, Los Angeles, May 14 – July 16, 2011). In contrast to Warhol and his Brillo boxes, Douke never generalizes. In 2008, when I first wrote about his work, I learned that the source of one painting was a mustard-yellow mailing box from Germany that he had kept for many years because something about it got his attention. His subjects are smudged, scuffed, labeled, dented, and, if one looks carefully, unevenly inked, so that one area of a box painting might shift from matte to glossy black. The deliberateness and rigor with which he achieves his exactitude places him in close proximity to Paul Cézanne’s investigations of looking.
Implicit in the artist’s choice of subject matter is a critique of a consumer society in love with the latest electronic gadgets and upgrades. At the same time, Douke, who has spent his artistic life in and near Los Angeles, undermines finish fetish art and minimalism, and their shared ideal of the pristine condition—I am thinking of John McCracken’s fiberglass and resin slab paintings leaning against the wall. Douke’s response was to make a painting of a worn prefab table leaning against the wall, its white surface eroded to a slightly gray pallor from use. It is a simulacrum beyond resemblance, and his attention to surface is such that it convinces us that this might actually be a plastic table. He used acrylic paint (plastic) to mimic something made of plastic. This is one of the visual jokes a viewer discovers while looking at Douke’s work. He not only gets the look of things, but also the feel of something as ordinary and specific as the scuffed white box that an iMac comes in.
Douke’s meticulousness toward the smallest details, such as the raised surface of a mailing label and barcode, for example, inevitably incenses some viewers. For them, there is nothing inherently worthwhile about a cardboard box; it is disposable, like so much else in our consumption-driven world. But the boxes and mailers are manufactured so they can be destroyed, and it is the moment before destruction that Douke focuses on, suggesting that we consider the possible consequences of common and familiar acts. What is it that we want? Why do we want it?
Douke has almost singlehandedly made still life—a subject explored by other West Coast artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, and Paul Wonner—into something fresh and disturbing. The scrupulousness of his approach equates looking/consuming with the ethical. The pleasure that the artist takes in looking at ordinary things is undeniable. This is what makes his work so compelling and urgent. Can we make our way through the world with such thoroughness? Or is carelessness and waste a privilege we have earned? These are questions we can continue to ignore, but which we, and our descendants, will not escape.