by William Corwin
Dennis Congdon’s palette of soothing pastel tones in oil, flashe, enamel, and lightly abraded surfaces may lay claim to the fresco aesthetic of Latium, but his subject matter inhabits the coffee houses and bars (and psychoanalytic offices) of late 19th century Vienna and Paris. The conceit of the Forum Romanum as a regulating geometry of jumbled ruins, architectural conglomerates spanning centuries, and crumbling statuary belies the real focus of Congdon’s paintings, which is the accumulation and appropriation of mostly classical and classically inspired objects as stand-ins for a very modern psychic sensibility. The piles and mounds in these large canvases drip with implication, forming tidy connections between sex, art, desire, and studio practice, and presenting for our consideration the eternal problem of drawing inspiration from the past—or in fact, drawing inspiration at all.
The paintings seem less about direct meaning than about the art of navigating meaning within a visual practice. Congdon simultaneously pokes fun at and glorifies the double-edged sword of implication and reference. On the one hand, there is the brilliance and subtlety of saying what you mean with a disparate host of symbols, which at times pretend innocence and at others remain absurdly obvious. On the other hand, there is the wasted fertility of engaging with powerful symbols for decorative purposes—inadvertently festooning purity with sex and other gross miscalculations. “Ignis Fatuus” (2013) is a dusky sylvan vignette reveling in the eternal battle of the sexes—in this case played out between Mother Earth and architecture—or, as the performer Timothy “Speed” Levitch would call it, “the history of all phallic emotion.” Mother Earth has won: a stack of broken and emasculated ridged column shafts are piled at the foreground, while all around seethe tendrils and labial plant forms. Nature has defeated the sculptor’s greatest emblem of support and strength, and while the penetrative object is no more, shadowy crevices and semi-hidden pathways and entrances abound. In fact, a pair of palm fronds to the extreme right of the picture plane entwine to form a very literal vagina.
This is all done with a great deal of humor and Bacchic cheer. In “Visuvi” (2013) Congdon’s method of stenciling—a perverse variation of fresco cartooning—combined with his energetic color choice of ochres, beiges, pistachios, and reds lend the landscape the character of a Wile E. Coyote vs. The Road Runner escapade. Here the sacrifice is ready: canvases are piled high on the top of the volcano, most prominently a painting of a Cubist goddess emerging from the volcano itself. This is a stack of at least a hundred canvases, possibly the entire contents of a studio, or a life’s work. Some are abstract, some just started, and all positioned precariously on the blowhole of one of the world’s most notorious still-active volcanoes, in full view of Naples Bay. That this volcano also helped preserve a treasure trove of classical art, at tremendous cost of human life, does not go unnoticed. Is the artist here wringing his hand, or supplicating the angry goddess?
Perhaps “Midden” (2013) comes after Vesuvius has blown its top. The painting has a strong Götterdämmerung feel; faces and hands emerge from the detritus, but amidst the rubble a fern grows up around an overturned Corinthian capital. A colossal woman’s face stares skyward while a pair of disembodied hands clasp in close proximity to her chin, perhaps a coincident prayer. Again a single painting dominates the scene. A version of the grieving Agamemnon, handing off Iphigenia to the sacrifice, lies askew amongst the junk strewn in this field of destruction. It is hard to tell if there’s any connection between him and the young woman’s head. Was the destruction we see in “Midden” even a natural calamity, or is it just the obscuring view of history itself? Congdon’s gentle touch, his almost dusty colors, and his precise but unintimidating stenciled lines smooth over the pitfalls and abysses of history, lending an explanatory continuity that only the artist or the historian can invent.