The Paintings of Julian Dashper

GWEN STACEY

The 'private life' is nothing but that zone of space, of time, where I am not an image, an object. It is my political right to be a subject which I must protect. (Roland Barthes)

Julian Dashper's art inhabits a curious space located precisely between the reassuring solidity of landscape painting and the sublime metaphysics of pure abstraction. It is a space which has often been traversed during the modernist Long March, but there is nothing transitory about Dashper's occupation of this niche. He sticks to it with the tenacity of a native son, exploring its length and breadth, testing its boundaries, and delighting in the ambiguous complexity of its terrain.

His paintings fit comfortably into the contemporary art context. He does not feel embarrassed about forming a symbiotic relationship with the commercial art network, although he is not averse to utilizing alternative art space when appropriate. His work is concerned with immediate personal experience and does not intentionally involve itself in political discourse—approach born out of the perhaps disappointing realization that art is not a catalyst for dramatic political change. These paintings don't want to save the world, but they are not devoid of optimism.

Dashper's paintings always manage to seize the viewer's attention. He paints with a brash confidence and an invigorating sense of abandon. The spontaneity and humanism of his art is immediately engaging. But having grabbed your attention the paintings proceed to confound you. Attempting to understand the work can be a frustrating experience. It is the product of a protean sensibility which can combine seemingly contradictory approaches with a disarming, but deceptive naivety.

The paintings proclaim a careless disdain for technical finesse, and yet quietly insist they are serious works of art. This is not a matter of an expressionist splurge on sackcloth being endowed with an elevated status through the mechanics of the art context. The physical structure of these paintings and the extravagant use of fine art materials deliberately signify the production of cultural artefacts. The dazzling paint surface lures the viewer into a sensuous absorption in the pure poetry of colour, line and form. The paintings would appear to refer to nothing except the act of painting were it not for the titles, which consistently describe a geographical location. At times the titles seem merely mischievous. Paint ings that are almost identical structurally may variously be titled Cass, Arthur's Pass, or Chinese Takeaways at Silverdale. One is tempted to disregard the given titles and substitute Composition #9, #10, and #11. But Dashper's com mitment to landscape reference involves the full panoply of the traditional landscape artist: exhaustive visiting of the location, in situ sketching, photography and serial variations on a theme. Moreover evidence of this process commonly forms the bulk of his exhibited work. To disregard the landscape reference is to completely miss the point of Dashper's painting.

The nature of landscape reference is ill-defined and ever changing. Dashper's conception of landscape extends well beyond traditional associations with the rural environment. Some of his earlier exhibitions were concerned with a particular area carefully defined in time and space. Recently more generalised locations are referred to and he has acquired a fondness for a type of geographical trans-location suggested by such titles as Tolaga Bay at Fergusson Wharf from the Domain or Regent at Cape Runaway. I suspect this psychedelic mixing of disparate locales may be related to the experience of touring whereby memories and impressions of a particular area are carried from one place to another. Dashper's employment as a taxi driver must also contribute to the sense of continuous motion pervading his recent painting.

Returning to the paint surface, one can search in vain for the most rudimentary landscape motif. I think of the way something as simple as the use of the horizon in Diebenkorn's work links his paint surface to the natural world. Occasionally a similar thing happens on scanning Dashper's chaotic surfaces: a particular colour combination, a linear cadence, or the over-all rhythm of a piece can trigger a private recollection of the place referred to in the title. More commonly, however, the representational axis is entirely absent.

Inevitably it becomes. apparent that the paintings do not attempt to describe the appearance of a place, rather they create a metaphor for the artist's experience of a place. This experience is essentially a personal event, in which the sense of sight is not necessarily given a privileged position. There is not a lot I can sensibly say about such painting, without recourse to psychoanalysis or poetry. We do not have a language that can adequately analyse the infinite subtlety of personal experience. On a fundamental level Julian Dashper’s paintings attempt to create such a language.

The essence of these works hovers tantalisingly beyond the horizon of art criticism, but Dashper does not seek sanctuary in the mythology of the ineffable. His exhibitions insist on revealing the processes of his art. Preparatory sketches, studies, and photographs are usually exhibited alongside major paintings. In spite of his obvious affinity with paint, photography has always played an important role in Dashper's work. On occasion he has produced purely photographic exhibitions, and a single photograph is often placed among a group of paintings, as if to authenticate the landscape reference in the titles.

JULIAN DASHPER Cass 1986
Monochrome photograph, acrylic & crayon on paper, 1800 x 600 mm.

In a recent work entitled Cass, the photographic and the painterly are juxtaposed within a single frame. A black-and-white photograph of the railway station at Cass is mounted next to a small acrylic and crayon work on paper. The tension between the two images forms an engrossing dialectic replete with art historical reference. The Cass railway station has an almost iconic status within New Zealand art history and Dashper's 1986 photograph reveals that the building has hardly changed since Rita Angus painted it fifty years ago. The photograph has been taken on a large format camera in a style that closely parallels Walker Evans's photographs of American folk architecture. (It is probably worth noting here that Rita Angus was refining her austere vision of the New Zealand vernacular at precisely the same time that Walker Evans was revolutionising documentary photography with his cool photographs of the rural South.)

It is easy to understand why Rita Angus was attracted to this humble railway station. The simplicity and subtle asymmetry of the building provide the perfect compositional foil for the towering pines and the grandeur of the Southern Alps. It is also interesting to note how Rita Angus's realism allowed for substantial rearrangement of the real world. But viewing the photograph I find my attention increasingly drawn towards a single detail, absent from the Angus painting. At the centre of the photograph a First Aid cross painted on a cupboard door leans against the weatherboard of the station house. On closer examination it becomes apparent the sign is peppered with bullet holes. My attention is captivated by this bizarre fragment to such In extent that the rest of the photograph becomes nothing more than the background for a marksman’s perverse target practice.

JULIAN DASHPER Study for Cass 1986
Pastel on paper, 350 x 250 mm.

Crossing to the graphic work one finds the same equilateral cross is drawn four times at various degrees of distortion. One of the crosses is given a crude illusion of three-dimensionality, in a manner that recalsl McCahon’s monumental I AM paintings. The area formed by the intersection of the four crosses is painted in pure colour, centring the composition in much the same way that the First Aid target centres the photograph. (In both cases I am unsure whether the centre defines the back-ground or vice versa.)

The equilateral or Greek cross has been a recurring motif in Dashper's work since he left art school in 1981. At times he draws it with geometric precision, more commonly it appears multiplied and distorted almost to the point of being unrecognisable. Legend has it the original inspiration came from the luminous blue cross which marks the hill-top veterinary hospital at Silverdale. However it would be equally pertinent to point out it is the Black Cross which emerged out of Malevich's investigation of the Suprematist square. (Dashper has a habit of combining the Regional and International with an ease that would confound critics who insist on treating the two as diametrically opposed.)

It would appear Dashper is more interested in the remarkable formal characteristics of the cross and less concerned about its symbolic resonance. He uses repetition and distortion to transform the simple cross into an expressionist language capable of conveying an enormous range of emotion. The viewer is invited to examine the spaces between crosses, the relationship between parts, and the nuance of distortion. There is an unfailingly reassuring quality about this cross that probably owes as much to its associations with the Swiss Red Cross as it does to its intrinsic formal properties. In Dashper's work I am constantly struck by the way the cross retains some formal integrity even when reduced to an amorphous scribble.

JULIAN DASHPER Tolaga Bay at Fergusson Wharf 1986
Watercolour on papaer, 1200 x 900 mm.

The density of reference embodied in the Cass diptych proclaims an engagement with the landscape which owes as much to intellectual and emotional process as it does to sensory perception. The tradition of romantic absorption in the quintessence of the land is replaced by a more cultured perspective. Landscape is viewed in terms of its history, mythology and symbolic resonance, rather than in its traditional role as guardian of the natural.

At times Dashper's painting can appear wilfully obscure or unnecessarily difficult. He absorbs a bewildering variety of styles, combines seemingly contradictory approaches, and obstinately evades categorisation. However I am inclined to believe this is not deliberate obfuscation, rather it reveals a profound uncertainty about the nature of painting. His art openly acknowledges its doubt, conjecture and vacillation. He embraces the vitality of pure expression and emotional catharsis while simultaneously questioning its validity. This radical uncertainty is reflected in the physical structure of his paintings.

Paintings are frequently divided into diptych, triptych or four-panelled forms. These divisions are often established with considerable subtlety: in the velvet diptyches the nap of the velvet runs in opposite directions, producing an almost subliminal division of the painting ground. But having created these divisions, Dashper paints as if he were using a uniform surface. Paint spills freely across the dividing lines and the composition seems deliberately at odds with the structural symmetry of the ground.

A similar ambiguity is evident in the relationship between gesture and shape. Although paint is squeezed, dripped, slopped and buttered onto the canvas, areas of colour usually retain a sense of autonomy, resisting the expressionist prediliction for a homogenous paint surface. In paintings such as Cass Altarpiece, blocks of colour hover indecisively between a figurative creation of shape and an expressionist celebration of pure gesture.

Installation at New Vision Gallery, showing Julian Dashper's Cass Altarpiece (left) and Regent (right)
(Photograph: Peter Hannken)

Dashper's paint surface is open-ended. There is an overwhelming sense of contingency there. The artist refuses to be trapped in a recognisable style. Indeed the muscularity of gesture which tended to dominate, and perhaps limit his 1986 oil painting is already being replaced by a delicate series of water-colours. These recent works such as Tolaga Bay at Fergusson Wharf introduce pattern-making, a fondness for geometric shape, and a tendency towards more integrated composition.

Dashper's position in relation to the Postmodern/Modernist rupture is also ambiguous, although I suspect this can be attributed as much to the confused nature of the debate as to the artist's ambivalence. As a number of writers have observed in such a debate Modernism can refer to the International Style in architecture, Minimalism, formal abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, British scooter gangs, or any combination of the above.

It could be said that Dashper's painting displays a genuine affection for a number of modernist movements, the most obvious being Abstract Expressionism. He steadfastly maintains a romantic belief in the value of pure expression. But his work is also informed by an explicit rejection of certain elements of modernist mythology: he reads the landscape as a cultural text rather than engaging it as an elemental object. His schizophrenic absorption of contradictory approaches and freewheeling eclecticism is in direct contrast to the modernist self who masters reality by applying a series of autonomous disciplines. On the other hand Dashper's fundamental belief in the authenticity and value of private experience is at odds with the post-modern denigration of subjectivity. I suspect Dashper would concur fully with the quotation at the beginning of this article.

JULIAN DASHPER Ridgway Circus at Meremere 1986
Oil on canvas, 1800 x 2100 mm.
(Collection College House, Christchurch)
JULIAN DASHPER Arthur's Pass 1986
Oil on velvet, 250 x 250 mm.
(Collection of Jon Gow, Auckland)

 

Originally published in Art New Zealand 43 Winter 1987