This essay was written in conjunction with Dennis Congdon on view at CUE Art foundation June 1 - July 6, 2013.
Decaying remnants of Roman civilization appear in imaginary, quasi post-apocalyptic landscapes in Dennis Congdon's recent large-scale paintings. Recalling the Surrealist works of de Chirico or the Neoclassical period of Picasso, columns, capitals and busts abound in simplified settings where the history of art survives but humans don't appear to. Congdon collects and archives in paint the sculptural and architectural elements of Ancient Rome. He then performs the devotional act of depiction upon these emblems of cultural decline, arranging them in piles or dispersing them in confectionary-colored worlds in a linear manner that at times recalls Saturday morning cartoons.
The four paintings for this show (each of which measure 94 x 107 in) are patched together from stencils Congdon has made to enlarge his drawings. After cutting out holes and slashes in pieces of paper where the drawn lines were, the negative images become positive again as he paints them in. The stencils are then discarded, as the main event evolves on canvas: lines, dashes and dots assemble into coherence through this indirect process, as stenciled areas are puzzled together into fields of fragments. This process brings attention to the flux of marks scattered throughout, the distribution of which can at times flatten the images and push them into the realm of playful artifice.
Congdon uses a combination of flashe and enamel paints to create a matte surface, giving the works an almost screen-like feel, making the scenes feel far away. His subject, objects carved into stone that merge with the landscape emphasizes the idea that the natural world and the human-made world are not separate, they exist in one unruly hybrid.
In Ignis Fatuus (2013), pieces of colored architectural columns are arranged in a wobbly-looking tower in the center of the canvas, with attendant Roman debris lying around it. The title is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem and refers to a phosphorescent light that hovers in swampy ground at night, possibly caused by rotting organic matter. In Congdon's swamp, seafoam greens, acrid blues and rusty oranges abound, as flora appears to be growing between the ruins, creeping around as though it might one day take over. As there are no people in the scene, only their dilapidated constructions, one wonders if the human race is the rotting organic matter causing light. The absence of figures in all of these works brings attention to the fact that without the human presence to cultivate our environments, nature will begin its task of reclaiming the vestiges of civilization almost at once. However, Roman sculpture would fare pretty well if humans were not around, probably lasting hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer.
In Midden (2013), a Hanna-Barbera palette of pink, orange, yellow and blue, reigns, suffusing and re-animating a landscape of ancient detritus. Midden is an archeological term for a dump that contains waste products and artifacts of day-to-day human life. Again we see the man-made scraps from a long dead culture strewn about, interspersed with plant matter. The composition of this painting is less hierarchical, with the surface almost entirely covered with pictorial information, some left in a linear state, some fleshed out only slightly.
Our contemporary experience of the Classical world is as a dismantled but somehow still-living society: ruins can co-exist with the buildings and bustle of the present, as in contemporary Rome. One can look out onto the Forum as modern life whizzes by and behold a vaguely organized maze of partially identifiable ancient objects, rubble, and vegetation. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon recounts how Poggius, a servant of the Pope in 15th century Rome, having climbed the Capitoline Hill to view the Forum with a friend was moved to observe, "The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune." In Congdon's imaginary vision these ruins are in further disarray, as in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and they are bathed in a haze of cartoon colors, passing them through the filter of American pop culture.
The incompleteness of the ruin encourages a collaging of past and present. Based on the remnants, it is possible to reconstruct in our minds the way things could have appeared centuries ago. Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, described Rome as a city that mirrored the multi-dimensionality of the unconscious mind, with its collision of architectural, sculptural and painted remains from different time periods. "Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past-an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest ones." For Freud, remembrance had a double meaning of both recalling and reassembling, or putting the members back together.
Congdon engages this process of re-membrance. Afrodite (deshabille) depicts the large head of a female statue from antiquity, lying on its side, dominating the landscape. Deshabille means unclothed in French, and a quarter of the mass of the goddess's head has been cut away, leaving a smooth tabletop surface on which a conglomeration of quasi-structural, organ-like fragments rests like a still life, leaning precariously against each other. Their strange fleshy pink color, the same pink that covers the cut-away surface area of the statue's inside, suggests that they are perhaps the brains, the inner life of the relic. The head of Afrodite (deshabille) could function as the protagonist of this exhibit: the artist substitute, with brain uncloaked, revealing a jumble that fuses wreckage and a mess of children's toys.
In Vesuvi, Congdon re-visits his motif of a mountain of canvases, some empty, some seen from the back, some with little daubs, some with imagery. This painting is in a black and white palette, like a drawing. Named after the still-active volcano outside Naples, it recalls Philip Guston's paintings of paintings: caricatures of the artists' output that are anthropomorphized, in possession of their own identities. Congdon has made a landscape from human endeavors, a monument to the efforts of the artist, which are themselves, monuments to the culture the artist is immersed in. The paintings, piled up like forgotten garbage, are a reminder that all things pass.
Landscapes are a product of the human interaction with nature. Any given landscape is defined by the events that unfolded there and in order to fully comprehend it, many periods in time must be superimposed upon each other, as though time is not linear. A series of thens and nows must blend in a disorderly mix, as the past is not really distinct from the present. Dennis Congdon situates himself within the arc of history, in an acknowledgement that humans cannot exist outside it, making "then" into "now" and vice versa. The events of the recent and long-distant past contaminate and inform our every move: the end of the Classical era inflects our art and culture today just as the end of all other civilizations foreshadows the end of our own.