Review: Adam Dwight & Dana Jeri Maier: Off in a Corner
Running until May 7th, Flashpoint Gallery presents “Off in a Corner,” an exhibition of work by local artists Dana Jeri Maier and Adam Dwight. Contending to “explore transitions made to adulthood and the role that drinking plays in them,” Flashpoint, which brands itself as a “creative laboratory for DC Arts Organizations,” is deliberately tackling a sensitive and controversial subject. In this curation, each of the two artists employ illustrative approaches to construct very different narratives - one autobiographical and vague, and the other expositive and didactic. Upon entering the gallery space, the viewer is confronted with statements about the distinct bodies of work by the two artists. Maier chooses to frame her work by posting a single drink coaster with the sketchy image of a seated, slouched, and frumpy woman. Dwight, on the other hand, chooses to direct his dialogue from the start with a long statement detailing his body of work.
In addressing Maier’s collection of drink coasters, one is immediately overwhelmed with imagery. Laid-out in a long, geometric composition on the wall, the work initially carries the eye horizontally as it would text, but distracts and disorients this mode of scanning with occasional anomalies in the mark and weight of individual pieces. The style of Maier’s drawings are hasty forms with cross-hatched modeling yet complex compositional organization. Most of the drafting is done in an unflattering manner through the use of shadow, texture, and emphasis of disproportionate and crooked silhouettes in both the object and figure. Occasional liquid stains that have obscured and damaged some of the drawings act as birthmarks on the coasters, reminding the viewers of the utility and experiential history that grounds each coaster drawing. One large and varied collection of coasters is flanked by two smaller arrangements focusing on color and the figure, respectively. A table at the end of the room displays even more coasters in their natural setting, laid out in a way that begs the viewer to touch and rearrange the works like pieces to a puzzle.
The organizations of the wall coasters into columns and rows seems haphazard and random only at first glance, for if you allow yourself to read them as blocks of a comic book (a rather lonely and dark strip at that), they can be rationalized as a narrative. All in all, there are reportedly 400 coasters, signifying an obsessive and on-going practice of the artist to find something not yet resolved. Coasters with drafts of personal statements synergize with the fantastical and observational illustrations to establish themes of internality, autobiography, and identity. Several trends are easily apparent in these vignettes. Many of the coasters depict lonely figures, either solitary (literally isolated), or in cramped groups with cold body language and lack of eye contact between characters (psychologically isolated). Still life is another common tactic, with the compiled objects either acting as figures in an empty landscape, or creating suspense when the objects are compiled and stacked in delicately balanced architectural forms. Empty picture frames, overhanging umbrellas and lights fixtures, and the repetition of glass bottle imagery are crucial symbols in forming Maier’s narrative.
Despite the collective nature of the coasters, a few individuals do feel out of place with the rest. For instance, one coaster consists only of ink embellishments around the red printed “Peroni” text. As the only instance of Maier working on a non-blank slate, it seems detached from virtually all of the other coasters, even those with hand-written text. Additionally, the use of color in the coasters in the largest installation is too sparse and inconsistent, even within the flexible narrative. Nothing about these color interruptions comes through as noteworthy or necessary. Despite these gripes, the use of personal observations and real-life experiences pose interesting questions of both Maier’s and the viewers’ relation between psyche and the bar environment.
Dwight’s work is derisive, yet, serious as it addresses the historical trajectory of the organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and its relation to policy and popular culture. Responding to the creation of the non-profit organization in 1980 as Candy Lightner’s personal response to untimely death of her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, by a hit-and-run drunk driver, the extensive background of MADD interred in the artists’ statement contextualizes ideas of grief deferment and media sensationalization. Initially created to promote awareness and lobbying pertaining to the issues of drunk driving and victim support, MADD (with Cari Lightner as its poster child), would not only gain unforeseeable momentum and bureaucratic force, but transform into a crusade for “neo-prohibitionism” and the eradication underage drinking itself. This transformation ultimately caused even Candy Lightner to sever ties with the organization in 1995. Both sympathetic and interrogative, Dwight uses his art to address MADD through it’s own rhetorical strategies - the employment of grotesque and exaggerated illusions. Using scribbled and jittery contouring on twisted and satyrical figure development, Dwight uses uncomfortable imagery to express his struggles with understanding MADD within it’s personal and public implications.
Introducing his painting series with “Candy and Cari Lightner and the Birds,” this portrait, a collaboration with Lightner herself, sets up the unstable and tragic origin of MADD. In this depictions of mother and child, the flux of MADD’s agenda and its co-option of Cari’s identity is rendered through psychedelic and surrealist imagery. Although both characters are wearing fine dresses appropriate for a formal event, the two figures are situated in the foreground of a barren and desolate plain in which ominous and violent birds swoop and cut between their stances. Candy’s expression is catatonic and reserved as she extends her arms to her daughter who appears spiritually-absent. Cari’s strained facial expression and impossibly-limp posture implies that she had just been stunned or struck by something shocking and forceful. This painting renders the instances of Cari’s traumatic death and Candy’s state of bereavement static and inescapable, setting a tone of nostalgia and loss for the rest of the series. The progression of the paintings “Patron Saint of Drunk Driving (for Cari),” “Laughing Through the Bottom of the Barrel:Portrait of a Fanatic,” “M.A.D.D. The Movie,” and “National Uniform 21 Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984” each further the dialogue with similar shaky pen-lines, distorted figuration, and washy, contrasting color schemes.
In addition to the five paintings, a mixed media sound sculpture and an animation complicate the storyline with modern-day-societal portraits of drinking and youth. “No Matter What,” consists of an amorphic wood panel painted with colorful, organic motifs and supporting a black and white ‘Rorschach-inkblot-patterned’ staircase. Atop of this alter sits a bone-colored figure of a mother cradling a chipped and damaged child - an obvious reference not only to Candy and Cari, but also to any other fractured parent-child relationship. The sound-loop accompanying this dream-like sculpture is a hyped-up and ridiculous ‘shout out’ to presumed peers and friends as performed ad-lib by the artists’ younger sister. Surprisingly candid and energetic, it’s hard to decipher, let alone make sense of this slew of references and proclamations of gossip to all of her “baby girls” and “homegirls” out there. By broadcasting and scandalizing these interpersonal relationships with such bravado, this naive and rebellious outburst seems to be compensating or propagating for something intangible. The audio is ironically reminiscent a drunken rant or an out-of-control media frenzy, though extrapolating this interpretation was not something that happened on the first visit to the gallery space.
The equally bizarre animation “RocketFuel” mimics the artist’s graphical style but tells the story of an alternate parent-child relationship strained by miscommunication and alcohol. The subject of the clip is a monstrously-drawn teenage boy with an equally-abrasive vocations. Sitting in an alley littered with unidentifiable debris that appears to be breathing at times, a playing television serves as a comfort item, though the character never actually watches the screen. Speaking of his dependent relationship to media and complaining about the tension that this viewership creates with his mother (who he addresses exclusively as Becky), a verbally-abusive and alcohol-stressed relationship is eluded to. While the clip reveals that both the adolescent character and his mother use alcohol, the child, though immature and apathetic, seems to be in more control of his personal relationship to alcohol than his mother, raising another failure of authority to mediate substances.
When Dwight addresses his views on “over-idealized young adulthood now soaked in the ritual of binge drinking,” he addresses a situation with the potential to spiral out of control much like the Candy’s vision of the MADD organization has. Additionally, he critiques the inefficiency of exploitative groups to quash the issue of underage drinking and social and cultural temptations to drink that are only reinforced by this type of media. Dwight’s collection of work questions family relations, coping mechanisms, exploitation of ethos, and the power of authority, though he does not directly attack the grounds of MADD or promote a lessing in the severity of alcohol laws. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the intentional distance from proposing solutions or clear agendas is realized in Dwight’s collection, as questioning didacticism with didacticism is a tricky concept to portray at a glance. Because of the aggressive manner that characterizes his work, the instant and, perhaps, more prevalent (although much less interesting) read on his work is that of hatred for the MADD Organization and underage drinking regulation.
The two systems of work were worked symbiotically when displayed vis-a-vis on the opposing walls of the space. Maier’s coasters, though small and detailed, were able to talk back to Dwight’s large, colorful, and optically-jarring gouache paintings by shear virtue of quantity. Maier’s personal perspectives as sketched live-feed have a relation with Dwight’s socio-political meditations in the fact that nothing is glamorized in either collection. While I agree that each body of work employed narrative and stylized illustration that were both psychologically and visually stimulating, I’m not throughly convinced that the relations between the work are as obvious as the show’s mission statement implies. I do not necessarily direct that as a negative evaluation, however, because the delicate nature of the issues addressed lends itself to more mysterious and subliminal expression. I feel that Maier’s work initially reads as introspective and whimsical, even rustic, while Dwight’s reads as propaganda if just taken at a glance. Without the direction of show or artists available to the viewer, only someone who spent a bit of time evaluating the collection would be able address all of the nuances pertaining to adolescence and drinking present in both artists’ work.
To exemplify the commentary drinking put forward in this show, an additional event scheduled for April 21 includes a gallery talk followed by an invitation to bar-hop with the artists as they drink and draw by candlelight. This unconventional gallery talk should provide an interesting supplement to the personal, romantic, and dark undertones of the bodies of work in question, and is definitely a way for Flashpoint to push the boundaries of the DC art scene.
Ultimately, “Off in a Corner” does help to bring the complicated implications of youth culture, the need for self-affirmation, the inherent feelings isolation and subsequent substance abuse out of the corner, albeit through somewhat convoluted means. While Maier actually drafts on the physical platforms that support drinking glasses, Dwight questions the legacy of one of the most established and bombastic platforms against drinking. The use non-realistic illustration and uncertain scenarios of “Off in a Corner” attempts to present opportunities for interpreting the complex relationship between alcohol and identity development, although unless a viewer spends a fair amount of time with the exhibit reading the bios of the artists, they may just get caught up in their personal emotional responses to the mark-making techniques.