AT THE GALLERIES:
By BOBBIE ALLEN
The great literary critic M.H. Abrams once described a shift in the way artists looked at the world as the difference between a mirror and a lamp.
Instead of a passive reflector, receiving and reproducing images, the self-determining mind decides what it knows, and illuminates it. In this sense, artists create the world by shining light on new realities.
I bring this up because the extremely complex work of Daniel du Plessis straddles both metaphors (on view at Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 No. Coast Highway, through April 30).
His assembled and painted panels represent a kind of autodidactic style that also seems to be a philosophy.
His choice of materials alone is unique. Du Plessis layers resin and acrylic on panel, painting on some of the layers as he goes, or adding objects. The effect is similar to encaustic, but the surface is very glossy — so glossy, in fact, you can see yourself in it, itself a provocative aspect of his method.
The end result is sometimes an almost disorienting sense of depth. If you've ever been out in the darkest part of the night, away from city lights, and looked up into a moon-dark sky, you know what I mean. The Milky Way is up there, and you can suddenly see the layers of stars.
Take, for example, "Cosmic Blues (Nothing)." Seven panels, each 8"x10," line up horizontally. Each features a letter "formed" out of a cartoonishly thorny twig that together spell out "nothing."
To be clear, the thorns have grown into the shape of the letter (as opposed to being shaped). The letters stand out on the topmost layer of resin in a kind of desiccated green.
The many layers of each panel are all rich shades of maroon ranging to orange, and the colors swirl like nebulae. For all their glossy surfaces, the panels seem to swallow light rather than emit it.
There is cosmic depth, but looking deep within each layer you see not galaxies but butterflies, fish, roses and flames. There is multi-colored glitter, and you may notice stickers of stars and hearts.
Stand back. What's going on here? Maybe you might want to say "surrealism" — there's a sense of randomness and play the surrealists enjoyed.
There is also a kind of Hegelian dialectic: the dark and the light meet in the synthesis of form. It's hard, also, not to see the word "nothing" without thinking about existentialism.
Maybe all these things are in the intent of the artist, but I thought of M.H. Abrams' mirror and lamp.
There's a tension in Du Plessis' compositions that raises many questions and answers nearly none at all. That, to me, is Romanticism, the "lamp" in Abrams' book.
Nothingness in "Cosmic Blues" is both beautiful and frightening. It is tragic (flames, emptiness) and comic (glitter, stars). It's also not really nothing. But it is still vast and sad. What is the solution to this problem?
Keats might have called Du Plessis' stubborn refusal to answer "negative capability:" "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Du Plessis seems satisfied being in the mystery.
But he is also the mirror: "Something It Won't" (24"x 21") evokes the old symbolic still life painting called "vanitas." As painted in the 16th and 17th centuries, it served the mostly Christian lesson of reminding us of mortality.
Du Plessis blends in a little of the botanical still life painting popular in the eighteenth century. In other words, "Something It Won't" alludes to 300 years of painting, the age when art held a mirror up to nature.
"Something It Won't" is ostensibly a painting of a fly and a heart-shaped box with a drop of water in it. The fly is lovingly rendered, each hair on its hairy legs executed with needle-thin lines of paint.
The fly's iridescent back echoes the sapphire and emerald resin mat that frames the velvet red ground. But the whole thing is surrounded by an elaborate composition full of rats, spiders, snakes, butterflies, shells and blossoms unified by a matte black finish.
The complexity of this composition is a little dumbfounding. The natural world, like the nothingness of nothing, is full of symbols of life and death that constantly collide with each other in ways that can't be reconciled. There's a kind of beauty in the fly that we resist, like the blue-black wings on a crow's back.
Similar things happen in the disturbingly gorgeous "Fall-Out" (48" x 40"), which seems to be painted from the perspective of looking straight up into the heavens through the ghostly and knarled branches of some unreal baobab.
The sky has the dotted lights of stars, but it shines an eerie yellow-black. The strange asymmetry of the composition, combined with all the manifold layers of resin, makes you feel you are in the presence of something horrible but numinous.
"We know what we are but know not what we may be," mad Ophelia says in Hamlet. There's method in that madness; doesn't that mean we only think we know who we are?
Daniel Du Plessis, it seems, has found a way to not only be comfortable reflecting on but to also illuminate that absence.
· BOBBIE ALLEN is a poet and writer who has taught art theory and criticism. She currently teaches writing at the University of California, Irvine.
LA Times (The Coastline Pilot), April 20, 2007
acrylic, mixed media and resin on panel
48 x 40 x 1 inches