Tacita Dean: The Dante Project • One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting • Pan Amicus • Significant Form • Monet Hates Me
On ViewMarian Goodman Gallery
September 7 – October 23, 2021
Tacita Dean’s current show at Marian Goodman is not your ordinary gallery show. In fact, Dean has subtly revolutionized the very concept. The presentation of an artist’s work at a given moment can produce a species of tunnel vision because the individual pieces, often created at the same time, frequently bear such a resemblance to one another that they blend together. The viewer literally cannot see the forest for the trees.
Dean, at a stroke, transforms the idea of the show into a provisional status report: these are the projects, ideas, and finished works with which she is involved at the moment. Most artists have eyes not only in the back of their heads, but on every side. They’re looking around for ideas that cannot all be crammed into a single image, or even a series of works. This is not to slight the artists dedicated to a single style—the Morandis or Bram van Veldes of this world—but to point out that an alternative modality is possible and has been realized here by an artist of singular genius.
Walking into the gallery, a visitor is immediately confronted by Dean’s The Dante Project, commissioned by London’s Royal Opera House for the Royal Ballet. The idea of transforming The Divine Comedy into a ballet—the principal characters are two men, and until Dante’s old lady-love Beatrice appears in Paradiso, there are few female figures—is itself mind-boggling, but Dean set about the project by drawing on past Dante illustrators (William Blake, in particular) and accommodating Dante’s three canticles to her particular blend of the everyday and the fantastic. Dean’s vision of Inferno is dark, a logical choice given Dante’s description of Hell as a place “d’ogni luce muto,” a place where all light is mute. Dean also manipulates the conceit that Inferno is upside down, a vast hole—the earth displaced when God cast Satan out of heaven—that you must descend in an orderly series of tiers before you are able, later, to go back up. In her photogravures, Dean brilliantly translates Dante into images: Dante and Virgil, two dots, progress downward until they reach the frozen abyss where Satan chews traitors before scampering over him and ultimately finding the pathway upward to Purgatory. So down suddenly becomes up, a jarring paradox that Dean manages to convey in her evocative images.
Dean’s idea of Purgatory is more difficult to grasp. Here, we have five huge photographs of a jacaranda tree set in various Los Angeles cityscapes. This is pure Dean in its blend of banality—the streets have no special character, no striking buildings—and mystery: the violet blooms of the jacaranda are rendered in a bizarre green hue. For Dean, Purgatory is a vast tree Dante must climb before meeting with Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise. Dean uses the 35mm film she created for this third phase of the ballet to create ten silkscreen prints, all linked by a common image: the vortex, a theme that alludes to Dante’s vision at the end of Paradiso of three circles, the Trinity rendered as geometry. Dean’s color in these prints is dense and rich, corresponding to the ranks of angels Dante passes through before his vision of the godhead.
Dean’s rendition of Dante is enthralling, but her exploration of the pastoral mode in the Pan Amicus segment of the show is an entirely original exploration of a world we associate with, for example, Poussin. Here again, video is a point of departure, this one a 16mm film commissioned by the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Dean explains, in an interview with Jim Cuno of the Getty, that her experience of the landscape around the Getty put her in mind of the Mediterranean world and the god Pan, not in his violent personifications, but in his role as the god of pastoral nature. So, she made a film that carefully excludes the Getty Museum and focuses only on nature and fragments of classical statuary. The result in the gallery is two very different bodies of work that both draw on the video: six small collages on vintage 4 by 6 inch index cards and five medium-sized spray chalk gouaches on slate.
The collages are stunning, especially The great god Pan is dead (2021), where the inscribed title anchors the abstract, plant-like figures in the drawing to Dean’s pastoral vision. This delicate and exquisite piece seems like a Zen contemplation object and may well be, in the sense that by staring at it, we are transported into Dean’s conception of nature as Nirvana. The slate works reconstitute Dean’s idea of the natural world in a black-and-white mode that emphasizes the experience of the sublime. A second work titled The great god Pan is dead (2021) locates one of the plant leaves from the collage series in a swirling abyss. Here the death of Pan and his pastoral world is truly tragic.
The final three elements in the show are a 16mm color film interview between Luchita Hurtado and Julie Mehretu; Significant Form (2021), which is made up of 130 photographs Dean has reconstituted to show her affinities with the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth; and, finally, a series of artist’s boxes titled Monet Hates Me (2021). The touching interview—Hurtado and Mehretu were born on the same day, fifty years apart—deals with the vicissitudes of life as a woman and artist. Significant Form, a term used by pioneering art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell to suggest that non-representational shapes in a painting may contain meaning, grants us access to Dean’s imagination by showing us what she sees in seemingly insignificant photos. Monet Hates Me (the title derives from a letter from Monet to Pissaro where the words “hate tacita” apparently appear) is an edition of 100 boxes, each containing different objects and texts in a tribute to the role of chance in the creation of art.
Tacita Dean transforms the gallery into a model of her artistic mind. Like Dante, we are granted a vision of that paradise we call the inspired imagination.