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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
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Dawn Clements: Living Large: A Survey

<p>Installation view: <em>Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey</em>, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2021. Courtesy Mana Contemporary. Photo: John Berens. </p>

Installation view: Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2021. Courtesy Mana Contemporary. Photo: John Berens.

On View
Mana Contemporary
May 1 – September 4, 2021
Newark, New Jersey

The immediacy of Dawn Clements’s drawing acts as a seismic register of emotional states transcribing both real and imagined landscapes. Her double focus on up-close studies from her own life as well as appropriations of panoramic scenes from cinema keep in question the “subject” of her works: author or auteur? Are these expansive works (pieced together from multiple, often different, types of paper) meant primarily as documentation of the artist’s daily existence, or as directorial mise en scene of her life as acted out in projected scenarios? These questions are additionally leavened by the fact that Clements died at 60 in 2018 of breast cancer, so the reading of her graphic “scripts” is imbued with a particular poignancy in the last works. This comprehensive survey of her work on two floors at Mana Contemporary offers the artist’s range in both intimate and monumental scales. In the Mana Biergarten Gallery on the first floor are arrayed a selection of incrementally large-scaled compositions, while on the sixth floor gallery a grouping of relatively smaller wall works and even smaller collections in vitrines helps to elucidate the documentary aspect of the artist’s oeuvre.

The artist’s tour de force drawing technique encompasses Sumi ink, watercolor, graphite, ballpoint pen, and other dry and wet media—at times stressing the qualities of each independently and at others in a masterful combination of them. Clements obviously possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of art historical graphic tropes which she subsumed and synthesized into her own ebullient style. In Three Tables in Rome (2017), for instance, one picks up epigenetic traces of Cezanne’s watercolor still lifes, Jim Dine’s precise mechanical transcriptions of tools, and David Hockney’s cubist perspectives of quotidian instances. One of her last compositions, done while in residence in the National Academy in Rome, includes a matter-of-fact array of pharmaceutical prescriptions for treating her progressing cancer, collections of fruits (in oddly separate relation), a table lamp, and a red push-button phone, among other items that evince aspects of an artist’s “study.” Like most of her work, the composition is made up of multiple sheets of paper—in this instance ranging horizontally—giving the overall work an episodic feel, therefore making the viewer hyper-conscious of the artist’s (and their own) scanning glance of it all. A primary tension that the artist continually sets up in her work depends precisely upon such a magisterial overview made up of more humble, incremental gestures. While the artist generously, even lovingly, pays attention to every detail with breathtaking facility, one never gets completely lost in such discursive detours. Subsequently, Clements’s works are infused with a very determinate sense of site or place, which she brings to both documentary and fictional limits.

<p>Installation view: <em>Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey</em>, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2021. Courtesy Mana Contemporary. Photo: John Berens. </p>

Installation view: Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2021. Courtesy Mana Contemporary. Photo: John Berens.


An example of the latter can be seen in Jessica Drummond’s Kitchen (‘My Reputation,’ 1946) (2014) another rambling, horizontal composition, but one based upon a melodramatic cinematic scenario: a Barbara Stanwyck star turn in which she portrays a widow (significantly, of a partner who dies after a long illness) in love with a wartime serviceman. Clements explained her process of reverse engineering such subjects to the painter Eve Ascheim in a 2007 interview in the Rail:


Usually I have to look at the whole movie and find all the different shots where there are images of that room and see if, when put together they create a complete room. I log the location of all the different shots from the movie then I put them all together on paper to see if they’ll all fit to form a seamless whole. Actually they relate conceptually, to the process of making movies.

In so dissembling and re-compressing a time-based medium into a two-dimensional plane, the artist created her own brand of verisimilitude that both reveled in the airy spatial distortions of its organic wide-angle view and made much more substantial what were most likely prop flats in the film. In another related work, Jessica Drummond In Bed (‘My Reputation,’ 1946) (2012) Stanwyck’s female protagonist seems fraught by societal censure (her serviceman relationship in the eponymous film was not approved of), lying in bed, pondering her reputation. The artist has said that she was, very early on, attracted to Max Beckmann’s angst-ridden paintings, and here we see the filmic appropriation echo with the additional dimension of a woman’s perspective on social standing. In effect, the film character acts as an avatar for the artist-as-artist herself: as a figure traditionally “outside” of social approbation. This is all described in sinuous ballpoint pen lines that emanate out from the figure of Jessica Drummond like the waves of Expressionist longing in a typical Edvard Munch print. Additionally, the artist has included diaristic notations on the margins of the work, as if they are racing thoughts from her psychically paralyzed subject.

<p>Installation view: <em>Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey</em>, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2021. Courtesy Mana Contemporary. Photo: John Berens. </p>

Installation view: Dawn Clements, Living Large: A Survey, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2021. Courtesy Mana Contemporary. Photo: John Berens.


Triptych (Yaddo) (2017), depicts three versions of what the artist writes are “the same tabletop still life: graphic with no shadows, full color, rendered at night, showing reflections in the glass window above, and rendered during daylight hours with view of grass outside the window.” Seriously ill and near the end of her life at a residency, Clements became granular with her immediate surroundings, as if to grab it more tightly around her slipping constitution. What is remarkable about this grouping is the artist’s determination to keep on making viscerally gripping and conceptually rigorous art of the everyday. Drawn and painted in Sumi ink and watercolor, the artist arranges in approximate grids the detritus of quotidian errands such as claim checks, or parking and dry-cleaning tickets, together with what look like personal pop fetishes—a happy-faced sippy cup, a chocolate easter bunny—among other quirky objects arranged by the artist at the edge of her worktable. Like most of her other compositions, these items serve a double function of marking banal temporality and signifying their own, almost animate, firmament of intimate code that Clements holds out for the viewer’s decryption. It is this stark interplay between the artist’s mimetic facility and her will to impart the world with an almost psychedelic clarity that makes her body of work sing electric.

Nearby is an exceptional earlier work, Oval (1995–2000), a collaged roundel of caricatures seemingly drawn both from Clements’s personal affiliations and pop sources. It’s interspersed with dense diaristic texts similarly drawn from the artist’s daily life and from borrowed pop dialogues. Stylistically, it presents like an Aztec calendar stone populated by refugees from Zap Comix and vernacular graffiti, along with a myriad of other graphic associations. Clements’s capacity for rendering these all into one mythopoetic composition is quite a thing to witness. And one must really witness this exhibition in person, as no amount of high-definition reproduction can do justice to the breathtaking immediacy of Clements’s lifetime achievement.

Contributor

Tom McGlynn

Tom McGlynn is an artist and writer based in the NYC area. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian among other national and international collections. He is an Editor at Large at The Brooklyn Rail, contributing articles and criticism since 2012.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues