The English artist Michael Dean has a complicated relationship with language, one that reflects the ambivalent relationship between postmodern British sculpture—with its down-to-earth blend of minimal, found-object, figurative and formalistic idioms—and Conceptual art’s verbal abstractions.
Dean’s earlier installations might have been a joke on art historian Michael Fried’s notorious antipathy toward Minimalist “theatricality.” Tall, geometrically faceted concrete screens were placed in conjunction with self-printed books containing dialogue consisting only of swearwords or repeated laughter (“HAHAHA,” etc.). Rows of empty seats were arranged in the gallery to suggest a captive but absent audience. The effect was ironic, casting formalistic sculpture as a prop within an existentialist drama. But the sculptures’ geometric facets were intended to constitute—in my experience, illegibly and therefore solipsistically—a primitive, personal alphabet. This verbal limitation recalls the radically pared-down vocabulary of Samuel Beckett’s late work. Dean’s postmodern parodying of literary form turned out to conceal a more earnest, modernistic exploration of the structure of language itself.
Since 2011, Dean has seemed intent on putting this secret language under a physical strain that leaves it even less legible. His rigorously formalistic sculptures have developed bulbous swellings and organic, biomorphic curves. At his recent Supportico Lopez show, sloping lines of aggressively inscribed crosses ranged across acetate sheets affixed to the wall by way of glue-covered pages from one of his handmade books. These scrawled negations are signs in which the signified has submitted to brute gesturalism. If Dean’s installations have sometimes seemed too commodifiable to challenge—not merely parody—theatrical and linguistic conventions, this new body of work is a more desperate response to the dilemma facing visual artists who utilize language: how to reconcile art’s physical objecthood with the immaterial abstraction of language. Despite the best efforts of artists and poets from Lawrence Weiner to Susan Howe to On Kawara, the problem has proved irresolvable.
At one end of a long, rectangular gallery, several of Dean’s standing sculptures were awkwardly gathered. Concrete lumps and crumpled and stained book pages protruded from their bodies and littered the floor surrounding them, as if the sculptures had shed material in the process of arriving in formation. Some of Dean’s earlier geometric sculptures (2010-13) were stacked in one corner like better-mannered spectators who had ceded the stage to a ragged gang of zombies.
Dean sculpts by pouring concrete into shallow casts, then shaping, scoring, or pressing his books or parts of his body into the wet material. The pitch-black Now (Working Title), 2015, is a mixture of concrete and soil that gives off an earthy reek. On one side, the grizzled texture has indentations in the shape of Dean’s arms, as though he had burrowed, like the narrator of Beckett’s novel How It Is, into the mud. Dean is his sculptures’ absent protagonist, ghosted by their angles and hollows.
A work titled Analogue Series has pages handwritten in block letters stuffed into crevices between clumps of white concrete worming out of a peach-colored ground. The clumps are wrinkled by the plastic bags in which they were cast, their surfaces resembling stretched skin.
The scrawled pages are traces of communication partially concealed by the sculptures, as though not yet having found full utterance. The lumps of concrete slapped onto the sculptures’ basic figural structures resemble testicles, limp penises, and especially stuck-out tongues, reconciling language and matter, but only silently, in a sign for the act of speaking.
“Cope” was British artist Michael Dean’s debut solo exhibition at Herald St. Five understated concrete sculptures and four digital C-prints (all works 2011), all initially reading as abstract, were accompanied by a small paperback artist’s book. This sat open on the floor of the gallery’s front space, its first few pages unceremoniously torn out, and its remaining pages bearing botanical drawings in each of which the leaves curl and cross one another to spell out the exhibition’s title. This cryptic clue gently suggested that all might not be as it first appeared.
Indeed the four sculptures sharing this front space with Dean’s book, all of which are titled Cope (Working Title), do become more complex. These modestly scaled concrete panels, each worked into a low relief of interlocking triangular facets, leaned unobtrusively against the walls like architectural fragments waiting to be fixed to some Brutalist multiplex. When examined up close, their surfaces take on an odd quality, both artificial and organic, recalling polystyrene and textured polyurethane as well as cured animal hide. A tiny fragment of cellophane adhering to one suggests that these surfaces have been carefully smoothed and manipulated by hand, their formalist anonymity invested with an intimate sensuality. Furthermore, the rhythmically folded planes of the objects, organized in imperfect symmetry, recall (and are in fact derived from) the progression of letters in a word. The word “cope,” which squirms into clarity in Dean’s drawn plant forms, dissolves here into a rudimentary echo, becoming embodied in a surface from which it may once have rebounded.
The four photographs—titled either In (Working Title) or Out (Working Title), as if comprising two pairs—exhibited with one further sculpture in the gallery’s back space similarly move from apparent simplicity and spare, formal seduction to something more ambiguous and complicated. Each picture shows a single fragment of what at first appears to be dark marble or agate, carved so as to reiterate the pleated forms of Dean’s concrete sculptures. These fragments, however, have next to no depth beyond their pleated surfaces, and perch so lightly before the camera that the more you look, the more they seem to be made from folded paper—a photographed marble surface perhaps, quickly concertinaed to suggest the laborious carving of the absent original? In fact, the origin of this imagery is, according to the press release, “lumps of wet viscera,” and they are indeed photographs of photographs, though in the least Sherrie-Levine-like deployment of that strategy. Once again, the highly mediated ghost of the body uncoils from the work like a faint, unplaceable odor.
Photo: Michael Dean: Out (Working Title), 2011, digital C-print, 28½ by 21½ inches; at Herald St.