A day before the opening of Zeitgeist’s current show, gallery owner Janice Zeitlin had a little run-in with the law. An early morning alarm had summoned the police to the gallery, and the police summoned her. She arrived to find three Metro squad cars parked in front, the officers peering through the window at two lifeless male legs poking out from under a pile of shredded paper on the gallery floor. In finest CSI: Nashville mode, they entered the fresh crime scene, scoped it out, kicked at the legs a little and figured out that this was no dead body—just a clever facsimile. The officers offered Zeitlin a helpful suggestion: she should post a sign alerting passersby that this is an art gallery (you know, in case the word “gallery” stenciled on the front window is confusing) and that the stuff on the floor is a work of art. So that’s what Zeitgeist will do, after hours, for the entire run of Patrick DeGuira’s show.
DeGuira usually stays clear of the law (his wife is a district attorney), but sometimes a “this is art” sign might come in handy for viewers confronting his deadpan, formally rigorous sculpture. In his latest Zeitgeist outing, the gallery has paired him with Hamlett Dobbins, a Memphis artist who probably doesn’t need the extra signage: he makes paintings that, though subtle and complex, look like paintings.
DeGuira presents his work with such deliberation that you have to stop and think about every single aspect, even the words in the show’s title, “The Love/Death Thing.” Love and death are familiar themes for art, of course, but “thing” appears off somehow, one of those words people use when the right word won’t come to mind—like George Bush I’s “vision thing,” a concept so ineffable the poor man couldn’t grasp it at all. Love and death things would seem to fall into the ineffable category, but DeGuira perversely brings together things, in the good old sense of concrete items occupying a specific space. In his artist’s statement, DeGuira invokes French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet’s concept that artists should restrict themselves to “the impersonal description of physical objects,” leaving the reader to guess what lies underneath. DeGuira’s art is filled with recognizable things whose significance is at the same time elusive and easy to grasp.
The work that caused the ruckus with Metro’s finest is called “Killed by Nature.” Two legs, or at least black pants, shoes and socks on a leg-like form, stick out from under a bunch of green shredded paper piled in a corner of the gallery. The piece suggests a Roadrunner-like scenario where a load of grass falls on a guy who’s just walking down the street. But, as with all of DeGuira’s work, it’s also a purely formal construction in which light-colored, shaggy material intersects with the two black, linear elements—a nod to Minimalist sculptors who piled shells or rocks into a gallery corner. Unlike Minimalist precursors, DeGuira’s compositional elements are not abstract but representational. They depict a story—a scenario of grass plopping down on a pedestrian, say—but that simple story gets complicated. The man was killed by nature, but “nature” is shown in a blatantly artificial form—no one could confuse the paper with grass. Nature has been replaced or removed, the artistic equivalent of getting killed. DeGuira plays a joke where you can’t be sure what has killed what.
Another work, “For the People of Williamsburg,” consists of a black wooden bird lying stiffly on its side. The bird has the simplified features of a hunting decoy, just enough detail to transmit the animal’s general shape. The work refers to the 19th century American society that imported all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare, unleashing the European starling in New York’s Central Park (where it went on to smashing success as an avian pest). DeGuira’s tribute to that misguided “gift” is pure send-up of Victorian improvement projects, but it also has a contemporary dimension: Williamsburg is the neighborhood in Brooklyn where all the young artists and musicians live. To today’s Williamsburgers, who are DeGuira’s peers or competitors (or maybe the people he envies?), he sends a dead bird. Greetings from the provinces, fellow artists.
“Six Props for a Laughing Universe” shows DeGuira’s formal interests. It is a composite figure made from a box, a white folding chair, a cane, a few drops of red plastic that look like congealed blood, and a string of black triangular flags. He balances them precariously, the box on an edge and the flags coming in as if from outside the frame. Each of the items is a “thing” boiled down to its minimum characteristics. The uncolored flags, like their brighter cousins in used car lots, identify themselves through their shape and the way they’re hung on the line. The white chair is the simplest possible chair, but it suggests the ones set out for weddings, graduations and other formal celebrations. The choice to use things, not mere shapes, allows multiple meanings to bump around in these works. On one hand, they’re all props—Fred Astaire could have danced with any one of the things in the sculpture. But they also recall Plato’s ideal forms in their simplicity, and they prompt specific reminiscences of ceremonies on the lawn and drives past car lots.
If DeGuira drains qualities away from things to reduce them almost to pure form, Hamlett Dobbins keeps the qualities and drops the things. As a kid, Dobbins spent a lot of time playing with Lego blocks, and his paintings use a Lego-like interlocking angularity to set different patterns and textures against each other, often in a patchwork fashion. Those circular Lego nubs, too, show up in the way he applies dabs of paint or brings out the texture of his working surface. While the paintings are abstract, each one is dedicated to someone represented just by initials. Only the artist understands the relationship between these anonymous people and the works themselves, which makes each painting a profoundly private portrait.
Despite the consistent technique and recurring forms, the paintings are surprisingly varied, with no sense of belonging to a series. In most, the forms are sharply delineated, but then you have a piece like “untitled (for M.R./T.R.T.),” where panels of yellow shades melt into each other. Most of the pieces avoid symmetry, but then there’s the starburst form of “untitled (for M.S.K.G.)” where a cluster of gray shapes floats in an oval void defined by a corona of orange and green tiles. “untitled (for L.F.T.)” has a surprising biomorphic pillar with fleshy color and texture set against a background of yellow blocks.
When abstraction first hit the art audience, viewers would often look for forms that resembled other objects, like imagining shapes in the clouds. With classic abstract painting, this strategy misses the point, but Dobbins’ pieces actually require it. He takes forms from life and rearranges them, so if you think you see something you vaguely recognize, you might be right. “untitled (for N.O./G.L.)” has a large area of brown cut through with some gray lines that could be a detail from the sleeve of a coat. The central form in “untitled (G.M.M.)” recalls a cartoon or the cross section of a body. The gray shapes in “untitled (for M.S.K.G.)” look a lot like a clutch of pebbles. Who knows if these associations have anything to do with Dobbins’ sources—he doesn’t provide enough information to trace back to actual things or people. But the shapes and the initials are enough to encourage you to let your mind wander in that direction.
Both artists are involved in some heavy duty coding, each with its own kind of sneakiness. Dobbins’ paintings seem innocent until you slow down enough to sense the connections outside the canvas. DeGuira hides meaning in plain sight, making objects easy enough to name but harder to pin down.