Throughout my practice in general, I continue to be interested in the possibilities of the meta-allegorical in painting. Allegory being the relationship of a single symbol to a “thing symbolized”, I have always been interested in going beyond that and creating works where multiple symbols/ordering systems exist in the work simultaneously, all working together to require a certain balancing act of interpretation and discovery on the part of the viewer. In other words, the paintings themselves do not present the simple key of one to one translation that allegory does.
In my work, the meaning of the paintings is derived by the viewer holding all the various symbolic relationships present in the work in ones head, all at the same time.
I have emphasized this way of working in this show, modeling the overall physical structure of the exhibition on a sort of poetic interpretation of an alter-piece painting. I have carried over this structure of multiple works making up a whole, with one primary “central” panel (in this case the gold diptych), and multiple auxiliary panels to flush out the “story”. Both emphasize the importance of beauty and structure in the same way. The difference (beyond religious vs. secular) is that while an altarpiece historically was a didactic object of sorts, used to relate specific religious stories to the masses and reveal meaning, my work obfuscates rhetorical meaning in order to emphasize feeling, or “a vibe” as we call it.
The works in this show orbit around the mythology of going “West”. I come from the West, and I think its inherent qualities of openness, other-worldliness, awkwardness, strangeness, perversion, hedonism, desire, and indecipherability have always informed my work. I credit being raised in the West with my mindset as an artist, namely to avoid didactic and illustrative tendencies, and instead to aim for a transmission of feeling… more poetry than “point”.
Having now lived in New York for the better part of two decades, the West is simultaneously native and foreign to me, which now allows me to relate to the desire to go west, as well. The desire to head west has a long history in western culture, and particularly in America, and this history is often marked by a stark contradiction between expectation and reality. “The West” is seen as paradise, a garden of Eden, a place of rebirth, of new life and expanded prospects. But this hopeful prospect often goes sideways at some point along the way, and those seeking fecundity often find death. Whether this death is physical and final, or rather metaphorical, and thus a potential source of regeneration, is a never-ending question. In each case, it is unclear whether the story is really about end or origin, or if they are in fact the same thing. This obfuscation between beginning and end is where the show exists.
The works in this show take a variety of cultural references that I relate to this contradictory myth of the West as a starting point, and then reorder them with my own language. The Garden of the Hesperides, Joyce’s The Dead, Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters, the “not quite” idyllic paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, Manet, etc., as well as more recent, popular mythologies of the West, John Lennon’s Lost Weekend for example, his attempt to escape himself by leaving his life behind and heading to L.A., and of course the ubiquitous desires of every young person who heads to L.A. to “make it’, serve as armatures on which to build new images and ideas. Ultimately “West” means many things: it has an inherent ambiguity that mirrors my own way of working, and it’s that combination of openness, freedom, idyllic beauty, and unease that I’m emphasising in these works.
–Dave McDermott. Brooklyn, March, 2020