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PROFILE: SEAN DAWSON
Richard Dyer

The subject of Sean Dawson’s paintings is the process that precedes them, that in effect seeds them. The referent is no longer the object, as is the case in realism, nor the photograph as in photorealism, neither is it the subconscious as was the desire of Surrealism. The primary source material, which has undergone a radical process of disintegration, transformation and re-creation, is replaced by a precise mapping of its own occlusion.

What is so compelling about these paintings is the tension caused by the conflation of a technique one readily associates with the most extreme examples of hyperrealism with a subject that constantly evades categorisation as either figurative or abstract. When fragments of recognisable objects suddenly manifest themselves to the viewer it is not in the coherent illusionistic space of a rational, one-point perspective system based on Renaissance principles, but within the maelstrom of a dedifferentiated meta-spatial matrix where conventional laws of physics have been warped, inverted, or completely suspended.

The surface of the paintings seduces the viewer to enter into an arena akin to that found in Baroque and Rococo illusionistic ceiling painting, a soft-focus aerial perspective that does not rely on a Euclidean linearity or a Pythagorean structuring of form. We are in a multi-dimensional environment where an object, or remnants of an object, may exist in more than one place at the same time. This is a universe like that of the new physics of subatomic particles, where the logic of the normal space–time continuum is disrupted by the folding of space.





In earlier work, such as the Destroyed Rooms series (2001), this folding of space is literal; the image of a room is folded over on itself like a Rorschach inkblot. Mirroring is employed to shift the imagery out of the accepted conventions of picture-making and to flatten it into a ‘skin’, as if the surface of reality has been peeled from the world and atomised by a process of ‘digital-pointalism’, revealing the blank grey continuum beyond, which could either be a pictorial representation of infinity, or simply the gallery wall. The space implied by the illusionistic shadows cast by the fragments of disintegrating reality is the same as the actual depth of the canvas stretcher, it is as if Dawson is foregrounding the physicality of the painting as an object, while paradoxically denying it by the use of illusion; the image is then folded over on itself a second time, each quadrant of the painting mirroring its opposite, creating a jewel-like emblem of the disintegration of an image of disintegration.

In the most recent work the original images are gleaned from fashion photography, specialist magazines on custom car air-brush art, modernist architecture and images of so-called ‘outsider art’. Dawson is drawn to found images that lie at the margins of society, those areas of culture that demarcate the edges of acceptance: the tattooed body, the productions of untrained artists, extreme haute couture fashion. Scanned into a computer and printed onto clear acetate sheets the now translucent images are melted, buckled, stretched and liquefied with the aid of a heat gun, morphing the thin skin of the image into new configurations. These ‘damaged’ simulacra, which now exist between the second and third dimension, between photography and sculpture, are then re-photographed in extreme close-up with a macro-lens, under strong directional lighting, giving rise to shadows cast on the wall behind. The resulting image is chromatically enhanced by manipulating the colour settings on a laser copier, then once more transferred to acetate and its projection used as a basis for the final painting. This process of controlled destruction and staged re-creation is a complex development from early work where the artist made paintings of plastic toys that had been melted beyond recognition, this was an early attempt to produce realistic paintings of objects which could not be easily decoded.

What we read as infinite space is undermined by the casting of illusionistic shadows onto this space, flattening it into two-dimensionality, the integrity of this surface is then further disintegrated as it fragments, revealing further layers of abstraction and/or reality. It is this constant building of reality and its subsequent exposure as illusion, the imbrication of abstraction with hyperreality, and the disengagement of the object from its normal spatial matrix that qualify this work as transecting new territories of exploration in the practice of painting.

There are affinities with a number of other contemporary artists, such as Matthew Ritchie, whose first museum survey is currently on at the Massachusetts Contemporary Arts Museum, the LA artist Chris Finley, and more particularly with New Yorker Inka Essenhigh. But these artists opt for the ‘flat paint aesthetic’, reducing all areas of the painted surface to an enamel-like, graphic, early-Disney cartoon facture; in fact both Finley and Essenhigh use enamel paint in order to emphasise the flatness of the painting and the mechanical nature of production, thus shifting the focus of the work into the realm of the sign. Their approach is reductivist and synthetic, ‘purifying’ the formal components of the work until they have been distilled into a flat system of signs that almost seem to ‘stand in’ for the painting.

However the true antecedent to Dawson’s practice lies in an almost forgotten movement that developed directly from Abstract Expressionism in the late 1960s and was dubbed ‘Abstract Illusionism’. The principal practitioner was James Havard, who along with Ronald Davis, Jack Lembeck and a handful of others reacted against the strict tenets of a Greenbergian aesthetic that decreed the supremacy of the surface over the evocation of illusionistic depth. Turning their backs on the image and embracing the gestural and the abstract, the Abstract Illsionists nevertheless rooted their practice in an engagement with a mostly shallow three-dimensional space, evoked, like Dawson, principally through the use of trompe-l’oeil shadows. In Havard’s work seemingly spontaneous and random blobs and strokes of paint would be catapulted into the third dimension by the simple addition of a soft-edged shadow a few inches away. This so went against the modernist code of the primacy of the ‘object-hood’ of the painting and the preservation at all costs of its flatness, that his work, and that of the group as a whole, was soon to be critically dismissed by the guardians of high modernism.

Dawson has adopted some of the strategies of the Abstract Illusionists as merely one element of a rich and highly complex process, and his work has moved far beyond its historical antecedents and is far in advance of his nearest contemporaries. In these extraordinary paintings the parameters between abstraction and realism are constantly collapsing in a multi-layered blizzard of deconstructed form, giving rise to a unique and powerful body of work.

Richard Dyer

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