A Portrait without the person

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Dexter Dalwood is the bookies’ favourite to win the Turner Prize. Rachel Clarke profiles the artist.

With the winner of this year’s Turner Prize being announced on the 6th December, the attention of the art world has been focused for the past few months on the four finalists. Despite competing with three equally intriguing artists, Dexter Dalwood’s work has captured the public’s attention with highly decorative but eerily haunting canvases. Dalwood has four paintings currently on show in the exhibition at Tate Britain, including “The Death of David Kelly” and “Herman Melville.”

Born in 1960, Dalwood completed a foundation art course at St Martin’s School of Art and Design, London in 1981. He was awarded a BA in Fine Art from St Martin’s and an MA in Fine Art at the Royal College of Art. His first solo exhibition took place in 1992 at the Clove Building, London. Over the last few decades, Dalwood’s work has grown in popularity and is regularly exhibited at numerous solo shows across the UK, Europe and the United States. A large proportion of his work is found in both the Tate and the Saatchi collections and is regularly used as a basis for a number of intriguing and highly innovative group shows such as “Rank: Picturing the Social Order 1516-2009” in which a work by Dalwood was one of ‘500 paintings of social stratification.’

The show for which he has been nominated for the Turner Prize was a solo exhibition at Tate St Ives earlier in the year; a comprehensive exhibition which featured Dalwood’s work from the last twelve years. The exhibition revealed the rich variety and depth of his work as well as exemplifying the artist’s interest in both historical tradition and contemporary politics.

The combination of past and present begins with Dalwood’s unique working method. He starts by creating small collages on paper, using randomly collected images, scraps of media and photographs that he cuts, tears and then pastes together. Dalwood, in an interview for the Tate Channel, commented that “my ambition is to make paintings which when you look, make you think of other images.” To achieve this, Dalwood incorporates into these collages, direct references to the history of art, appropriating artistic styles and individual artists, quoting Munch in the metallic palate and swirling brushwork of “Gorbechev’s Winter Retreat”, (2000) or the decorative, gold swirling circles of Klimt evidenced in “Greenham Common”, (2008).

Once he has completed these montages, he then reproduces the final image in oil on large-scale canvases. The joins and edges evident in the original collage are reproduced and have the strange effect of flattening the surface of the painting. This is perhaps most successfully exemplified in a painting such as “The Assassin” of 2005, part of a series of works entitled “Endless Night”. This series draws on Dalwood’s interest in pop and celebrity culture in its depiction of famous suicides and deaths, from both reality and fiction. In “The Assassin”, Dalwood employs large planes of colour and flattened two-dimensional shapes, whose bold outlines and jagged edges serve to emphasise the painting’s origin as a collage. In using collage in the creative process of his work, Dalwood engages with the modernist notion of incorporating objects and images from everyday life, ensuring that his paintings are emphatically contemporary.

Working within the genre of history painting, Dalwood’s paintings often directly reference historical events and famous figures. His paintings of the 1990’s reveal an interest in depicting both real and imaginatively reconstructed celebrity spaces, such as Michael Jackson’s Neverland, the Queen’s bedroom and Hendrix’s Last Basement. There is something haunting about these scenes; they are strangely stark, devoid of human presence, as Dalwood himself said “like a portrait without the person there,” described by Patricia Ellis as “lairs of rumour with Hello! magazine cleanliness; show homes of glamour, dark theme-park panoramas of gossip tourism.” His subjects are constituted by a sort of synecdoche of associations, and in recognizing them we must also acknowledge that this sort of representation is literally de-humanising.

Within these reconstructed contemporary scenes, however, Dalwood continues to quote from art history, in an attempt to weave the past into the texture of the present. For instance, in “Sunny von Bulow”, (2003), Dalwood uses a direct quotation from a John Everett Millais painting to evoke comparisons between the New York socialite, who fell into an irreversible coma, and a Pre-Raphaelite representation of Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia. By explicitly including this reference to British art history, Dalwood provides Sunny with a kind of poetic memorial. Creating believable images of places he has never been, Dalwood analyses our relationship with the celebrity media, and an increasing fixation with extracting and exposing the private and personal.

At the end of the 1990’s, Dalwood’s work shows a move away from these celebrity environments, choosing instead to focus on political events. In “The Brighton Bomb” (2000), Dalwood depicts The Grand Hotel, Brighton, where in 1984, a bomb was planted by the IRA in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Adopting flat, bold planes of colour and a combination of curved and jagged ‘cut-out’ shapes, Dalwood’s style recalls that of the great master of colour, Matisse. Using a similar balcony composition as that artist, Dalwood depicts the Brighton pavilion through the French windows, rather than the palm trees of Nice. Iterating a contemporary event through a familiar historical artistic style, Dalwood erodes the familiar distinction between past and present. The focus is not on the events themselves, but on how their presentation colours our interpretation: the painting’s explicit intertextuality urges us to interrogate modes of representation, and the extent to which they relate to or constitute the reality which we see as so undeniably fixed.

It is Dalwood’s unique blend of the historical and the aggressively modern that makes his work so interesting. His paintings capture fragments and use quotations from throughout the history of art and combine them with stark, bold references to contemporary society in a way that is both unsettlingly and reassuringly familiar. Like so many great painters, Dalwood’s work not only reflects on the state of modern society, but also recreates how we experience it. Focusing the viewer’s attention on his or her own interest in the private lives of the rich and famous, Dalwood’s work is unerringly relevant to a society in which celebrity culture and the commercial mass media is utterly pervasive.

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