Cornwall Dexter Dalwood’s paintings reside at the intersection of art history and the pop-culture imagination. That sounds straightforward enough until you’re confronted with a painting that references both Ed Ruscha and O.J. Simpson. It’s a jarring sight. White Bronco (2001) posits a view—O.J.’s view—from the front seat of the notorious SUV, in whose rearview mirror one sees the Hollywood sign before a smoldering sunset à la Ruscha.
Over a career of nearly two decades, the English artist, born in 1960 in Bristol, has often painted imaginary versions of historically significant figures’ domestic interiors, from Mao’s study to Bill Gates’s bedroom. He also paints sites of tragedy, for instance the road where the writer W.G. Sebald died in a 2001 car accident (The Crash, 2008), or pivotal locations from literary works, such as the swimming pool where the body of Jay Gatsby is found (Gatsby, 2009).
What makes Dalwood’s paintings so arresting, however, is the freedom of his stylistic borrowings. Style, in fact, is one of his principal themes. His work is rich with citations, whether from countrymen Francis Bacon and David Hockney or from continental masters like Matisse and Manet. When Dalwood quotes Bacon in creating a background, the history of painting snaps into the foreground. At first this obvious copying might strike the viewer as too obvious, as though a musician had sampled a little too much of a Beatles song. But it also places the quoted material firmly in the past, reminding us of how inflexibly styles are associated with specific historical moments. Looking back over the “history paintings” he began making a dozen years ago—and Dalwood does think of them in the category of history painting—it becomes clear that the artist is reminding us that the style which vividly evokes an era will also inevitably underscore our distance from it.
Dalwood lays out his scenes somewhat in the manner of a stage set or diorama. Because the paintings are large and rarely include full figures—occasionally we come across a cropped pair of legs suggesting some unseen menace—we feel invited into these spaces, where we can compare the way Dalwood has envisioned things with the way we might have done so ourselves. He welcomes the friction between our imagining of a place or event and his own.
And there is friction—of many kinds. Take Diana Vreeland (2003), which is closely based on Matisse’s Red Studio (1911), but in which that room is furnished with additional drapes and overstuffed furniture and a grand vase full of tulips. After the initial shock at the audacious reconfiguring of Matisse’s masterwork, we warm to this ode to visual pleasure, the lush setting worthy of the iconic fashion editor who reigned decades after Matisse painted his own realm. The world of painting is a fundamentally physical one, accessible to all, the artist asserts, and he has no qualms about rearranging what came before him. Dalwood insists that our relationship with historical painting be immediate and visceral.
Though it refers to previous painters, Dalwood’s work remains very much his own. His citations shift and yet the end product is instantly recognizable, not unlike that of a cinematic auteur. When Dalwood quotes Matisse or Bacon, we feel an instant familiarity with the resulting images. That makes his elisions, insertions and changes in scale all the more jarring. He calms us with recognition and then shifts the ground beneath us. In the end it is defamiliarization that makes Dalwood’s work so distinctive.
A resident of London, the artist has had his chief success with shows in that city, appearing in “Die Young, Stay Pretty” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1998) and “Neurotic Realism: Part Two” at the Saatchi Gallery (1999), followed by a solo show at Gagosian (2000). He was also featured in “The Triumph of Painting” at the Saatchi Gallery in 2005. When we met, he was preparing for a midcareer survey at Tate St. Ives, in Cornwall.
In his third U.S. solo exhibition, “Endless Night,” recently at Gagosian in Beverly Hills, Dalwood showed 13 new paintings, all representations of the place where a historical figure or well-known fictional character died. After walking through the show, we talked in a spare, white room at the back of the gallery that featured Sustaining Light (2007), an installation by James Turrell that emitted a purple glow.