Dash fearlessly complicates the question of whether knowing the history or the narrative activates the art
New York CityCasey Kaplan
September 5 – October 19, 2019
Can a rectangle be sensual? The artist N. Dash sublimates perceptual experience through assemblages of rectilinear panels separated at times by incised lines, string, layers of fabric and even thick segments of high-density foam insulation. This regularity and rectilinearity may initially seem antagonistic to her expressed aim of representing experience: the cottony feel of disintegrating cloth in the hand, the cool sanctity of an adobe structure, and so on. The experiences she seeks to catalog and recreate run the gamut from simple interactions of material on flesh to transcendental moments of enlightenment deep in the South West desert. But, to be clear, there is no narrative in the works. The moment of disjunction between the apparent rigidity of the presentation—adobe on canvas, coated and smoothed with acrylic and oil paint—versus the theoretical nature of the artist’s practice manifests itself in the intellectual work required to reconcile the two. Untitled (all works are untitled and created this year) presents a rectangle with black cool gloss surface, sectioned off by white twine; cords thick enough to give a sense of the soft fibrous nature of the string. There are hints at the texture and feel of the malleable textile versus the shine and reflectivity of the coated adobe, and this indicates hardness; but are these cues enough to imply empathetic experience in concert with the artist? While insinuating that the primary aim of the work is to provide a window into her heartfelt experience, Dash does not seek to create a convincing illusion of that experience. Instead, she seems intent on critiquing and deconstructing the practice of painting itself, and assumes the viewer is game for the challenge. Sensuality in these paintings is in the details—in moments of a lapse of rigidity and the undermining of geometry—and has to emerge from the mind of the beholder.
There is a Beuys-ian narrative underlying Dash’s use of adobe, but it is a story that is alluded to rather than revealed. Adobe coats the stretched canvas and/or jute and acts as a fitful and unpredictable substrate for the artists’ work. It reinforces the cold regularity of the forms but then at times breaks down and subverts this system of intersecting polygons. At times Dash effects a Venetian plaster finish on top of the adobe, reflecting light and allowing screenprints to sit unmolested on the surface. At other locations, the adobe cracks and puckers, in these cases distorting and interfering with the overlayed images. Dash accepts this—the cracks existed before the image was laid down on top of them—and accommodates the medium’s natural proclivities. Similarly, other materials are incorporated into the assemblages referencing traditional painting media like canvas and stretchers, and emphasizing their failings when not used correctly. A square format piece includes a variety of smooth surfaces divided up and segmented by incised lines with a central silkscreen monochromatic form running down the center. Casually draped from the top of the panel are several small squares of dark colored fabric. While precisely and centrally placed, they hang flaccid, immediately confronting the hard/smooth surface of the rest of the piece, and even the taught stretched canvas supporting the adobe. Here again is a moment of slippage where we find ourselves registering the chasm between flat and smooth and hard, and limp and relaxed.
Is the whole piece a set-up for that one punchline? No: While the incongruity of the fabric against the smooth matte gloss surface is the climax of the piece, the undulating pattern of the central segment, the perceptible “trench-iness” of the incised lines, and the brooding deep green and panes gray of the surface layer of paint of the side flanking segments are all gentle calipers of our recognition of textural difference. Perhaps the whole assemblage of segments, surfaces and textures, and to a certain degree the idea of canvas painting is destabilized by Dash’s choices. Some of them are effective and others expand a bit too far and lose the subtlety that is the hallmark of the best works in the show. As we see again and again, Dash’s clod of disambiguated cloth moves like a cloud from picture to picture, its fuzzy softness acting almost as a textual signifier of the hardness and smoothness of the adobe. All the while though, that image exists as a function of the adobe, adhering to its surface . Certain works operate solely on this notion: smaller pictures use only the tension between the printed image of the disintegrating cloth and the feisty material on which it is printed. These pieces are simple and poetic meditations, and they require almost no background information to be activated. Dash fearlessly complicates the question of whether knowing the history or the narrative activates the art. For me, it did. Some will call that a failing, others will accept that the work can only be understood with additional information and accept that as intrinsic to the artist’s process. In the end though, does it matter if you know why you are having a particular experience? This is the no-man’s land that Dash’s subtly shaded rectilinear talismans inhabit.