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What is

On (or after) the work of Dexter DALWOOD

            Dexter Dalwood, ‘Fire in a Limo’ (2018)

There is a story about T. S. Eliot which may or may not be true. It seems the great man was on a Channel ferry, travelling from France to England. The early morning was fine, the air limpid. Eliot was stood on the deck, leaning against the rail, looking towards the approaching English coast. A fellow traveller, another American, turned to the poet and said, ‘So those are your famous White Cliffs of Dover. They hardly look real.’ To which Eliot replied, ‘Oh, they’re real enough.’

This is all that legend records of the encounter. But people who know or care have remarked how it exemplifies Eliot’s handling of meaning; specifically, his ability to infuse an otherwise commonplace phrase with multiple shades of ambiguity, while retaining its tonal singularity—the raiment of its effect.

In this case, the simple statement, “Oh, they’re real enough,” acquires various but equally disquieting—alarming, even—levels of insinuation depending upon which single word within the sentence is stressed. That the speaker may be in possession of hidden or arcane knowledge; guile, regret, threat, resignation and portent are a few of the possibilities. Meaning becomes as shaded as the notes of a musical scale; while the speaker, Eliot, transmogrifies from an individual into a dramatis personæ, bland, saint-like or sinister, but comprising alternate versions of an individual.

He is intensely present, yet as though slightly misregistered. He calls the nature of reality itself into question, and our relation to it. Panic may not be too distant; or boredom, or epiphany. The inference being that invisible forces may be at work, or covert machinations of circumstances, disguised yet absolute. Time feels unnaturally weighted. A malleable reality is revealed. The voice becomes enhanced, archetypal, supernatural.

The pores of consciousness become more than usually opened by such conflations of event, experience and expression. This may also happen retrospectively, enabled and enhanced by memory. Such occasions may well be routine or banal at the outset; and then circumstances stir or are stirred within them; perceived in a manner that is suddenly emphatic, ceremonial. The ordinary stuff of ordinary life acquires a strangely Classical gravitas.

W.H. Auden writes: ‘A poet feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked by an event is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship.’ The articulation or depiction of such experience—life jumping off the tracks that hold it steady—must be at once direct, truthful; yet it may be translated as a formidably strong alloy of compounded ambiguities. Art becomes a form of communion—Proust’s hawthorn tree in flower, that he is urgent to witness in written form. For an event has been elected—mysterious occurrence—to significance; reality takes shape upon a continuum of not simply increasing intensity but rarity and volatility of meaning.

Art reveals the capacity within the ordinary for the extraordinary. This includes the elevation of an experience from generality to that which contributes to the psychological invention of an individual. The composition of such a moment has a particular relation to art: to the psychological—ritual—depiction of event, which may take any form. 

Wyndham Lewis, in his autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering, recounts a meeting in Paris between himself, Eliot and James Joyce, to whom Ezra Pound had sent a pair of shoes wrapped in brown paper, tied with hairy string. Ritual of a sort ensues. The parcel, sitting square in the middle of ‘a large Second Empire marble table, standing upon gilt eagles’ claws,’ confronts the gathered writers, its presence filling the room. It demands action. All seems helpless; then:

‘You want a knife? I have not got a knife, I think!’ says Eliot.

The statement cuts, severing sense; meaning and event become many-shaded, heightened, stilled. The sentence could accommodate comedy (Lewis intended comedy, doubtless) yet implies an index of existential concepts, from angst to the absurd, by way of authenticity. Assistance—hope—has been suggested and immediately withdrawn, the empty proposal oddly weighted by the suffixing clause, ‘I think!’ Meaning has had its gravitational centre re-arranged.

Cogitate these accounts of Eliot’s mode of expression. Both question the nature of reality and event. Their most celebrated apotheosis, from The Waste Land, two words: ‘Unreal City…’ Their kinship to Beckett, from The Unnamable: ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ How language, spoken, recorded or written as literature, can acquire the mix of specificity and the unknowable—the incomprehensible—to create new meaning and convey renewed depths of feeling. Concision enables the epic, in relation to perception and experience. Eliot, in his critical essay of 1919, Hamlet and His Problems, offers a defining account of this complex artistic process: 

‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

All the arts, in their own ways—and painting, in particular—have the option to correspond to this formula. There is an overlap of intentionality, image, time (immediacy, speed, hindsight, contemplation) and event; and of subjectivity, its treatment and release from the individual experience to its universal expression, through art. The artist’s job begins and ends with the translation of personal truth into universal truth.

Written words and created visual forms may carve their meaning and effect, for their sense is sharpened by a coexistence of simplicity and significance, familiarity and mystery, resignation and resolve that shapes their expression.

Consider the following: from Sophocles, Antigone, a near-aside: ‘Tis a sad mockery, if indeed I mock…’; or Byron: ‘I saw two beings in the hues of youth, Standing upon a hill, a gentle hill, Green and of mild declivity…’; or Auden: The Age of Anxiety.  

Each is a picture. Such lines are distinct as events in themselves (their construction and mode of expression) and as accounts of events. They possess the seductive immediacy of a slogan—that is artistically accelerated—with the intimation of the epic, which is timeless. The foundations and dynamism of their sense and mood are strengthened by the powers of ambiguity, the unknowable and the incomprehensible.

In turn, their simplicity, vaporous, empowers them as agents, elegant and severe, to identify and infiltrate the passes, arcane and hard to penetrate folds, remote rooms and tensed sites of psychological experience. Those states in which anxiety and reverie, nostalgia as dim-lit as a cinema corridor, hypnotic transit, disturbance and sudden acuity combine. The confluence, be it violent or silent, of stasis and event and vision—foresight and vigilance.


In the studio of Dexter Dalwood. It is a large, high-ceilinged, plain-white cubicle, walls scuffed and paint-marked here and there; windowless, sky-lit, concrete floor. A visitor might be struck by its height—a somewhat chapel-like feel, but also industrial, or an office, a thoroughfare for work… There is a trolley laden with brushes and tubes of paint that remind you—even though it has become a truism, when speaking of painters—of the materiality of paint: its texture, smell, acquiescence to movement and application, to thinning and thickening; its place on the palette, its relation to the eternity of colour.

Dalwood shows his paintings to a visitor. He doesn’t speak much; his few comments offer a glimpse into his own thinking, but never seek to influence that of the viewer. When he looks at his own work, he seems immediately, silently, to be interrogating its state, its behaviour.

He is known as an exponent—investigator might be a better word—of history painting and the contemporary capacities of that genre. His knowledge of art history is vast and empathetic, as is his understanding and experience of the technical processes of making a painting.

In the past, Dalwood has collaged visual quotations from art history into tableaux depicting scenes from the darker pageantry of Pop-age culture. Iconic deaths were a specialism: the broad seam of tragedy running through stardom and glamour. Always un-peopled, as much about the capacities of painting itself as their subjects, these paintings depicted and took form as haunted sites; were at once allegorical, had kinship to graphic art, but a fin-de-siècle mood in which atmosphere atrophied event. The telling and the tale were equally seductive—the painting style itself, the index of references, seeming colonised rather than appropriated, and increasingly so, as time went by.

In time, larger areas of each painting—a bamboo screen, a Grand Canal, a yellow sky, the snowy forest’s interior—became perceptual infinity pools, to hold or support sharp-edged areas of place, event and circumstances, depicted like reflections, luxuriant, brutal, vivid, assertive.

Dalwood’s vision synthesised the proposition, that was also a feeling, that the viewer experienced a painting of a subject, a painting of the idea of a subject (the psychological equivalent of its astral form) and a painting of the technical and existential act of painting, simultaneously.

In recent years, the role of quotation in Dalwood’s painting has fallen away—jettisoned like a rocket propulsion system—to exist instead within his work as shadow. This shadow is psychological, formalist and pictorial. Subject, too, has been transformed from cinematic or operatic grandeur to a form more resembling a primal codex: an index of incidents or magical sites, a common denominator of which is a profound sense of isolation, alienation, departure or transit.

The technical and artistic achievement of this codex and these shadows is in the material and psychological depth of the painted surface—in the application of paint, its gesture, touch, smear, ridged outline, speed, density and colour; in the truth of its transmission of feeling. Night, darkness, edge and silhouette convey the stilled ambience of isolation in a modern, cold world of transport and service industry. Internationalism creates homogenised environments, as does affordable glamour. We fade to grey.

The paintings comprising ‘What is Really Happening’ and their immediate precursors, ‘Ein Brief,’ are singular in their imagism but dichotomous in their psychology. They are stark reports from bleak places, yet swollen with emotion—the emotion of the soul in flight, having seen finitude and experienced its power to fracture reality.

The paintings of 2017, shown under the title ‘Ein Brief,’ were a sudden breakthrough into depictions of a place at once modern—even cynically and brutally so in its tenacious hold on decadence—yet alienated and pervaded by the potent air of classical antiquity. Matt-black iconography on a picture plane of thick, metallic silver, industrialised yet mythic; and depicting the solemnity of ending: ceremony and elegy; the psychic residue of the soul’s departure—the karmic vapour burned off by death—takes gentle, momentary form; a glittering residue fallen to earth, a gift and farewell, silent as snow at nightfall.

Jean Genet, in his magnificent essay, The Studio of Giacometti, gives his account of this state, as the artist must survive it and work with it:

‘But I see all the better—if only still very obscurely—that every work of art, if it wants to reach to the grandest of proportions, must with patience, and with infinite care from the moments of its first planning, descend back through millennia, re-joining if it be possible that immemorial night inhabited by the dead who will recognise themselves within the work itself. No, no, the work of art is not destined for the generations of children to come. It’s offered to the innumerable dead…’

Genet writes of love and the debased in terms of equal majesty, that is also primal, archetypical, accepting of miracles. Beauty for him comes only—has no other source—from ‘a wound, singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself, that it preserves and to which it retires when it wishes to leave the world for temporary but profound solitude…’

Sartre—whose study of Genet, Saint Genet, expounds certain forms of artistic genius as psychic self-defence, an escape route, prison break from the unbearable—touches also on the ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ wound in his epic biography of Gustav Flaubert, The Family Idiot. The wound and the individual are bound: that which enables a leap to faith, be that only faith in the wound.

These critiques that lie deep within the harsh terrain of existentialism have sharp edges, like those of barely buried broken glass. And the temper of existentialism—the sharp edges of a search to know being—feels present in Dalwood’s recent paintings; it is present in the primal codex of ‘What is Really Happening’—the window seat of an aircraft, the surreal blaze in a Mercedes or row in a 4x4; in the magical snow that falls on the stage of an empty auditorium; an iconic drum-kit discovered in the broadcast radio side-chapel of a makeshift, subterranean world. Limousines and German airlines; digital clocks in insomniac rooms. Each have their entrances and exits; this transit.

‘What is Really Happening’—beyond the ceremonies of the dead observed in ‘Ein Brief’—is a sense of aloneness (neither solitude, nor loneliness, but apartness) in a modern reality where event, dramatic or bland, is remote, well-known yet unpredictable, brutal, non-negotiable; indifferent, godless. And ‘elsewhere’—of landscapes or snow or city lights—that is seen only through car windows, framed by an aircraft seat, reflected in mirrors; and always under dimmed or artificial light.

This may well be an existential position; for it is soul loneliness—a sudden awareness of facticity, freedom or dread, wide open to the nausea of angst, yet somehow, here, held at arm’s length. When in the depths of aloneness, the individual develops gills with which to breathe within it.

There must always be the search for the one idea for which an individual could live and die; and this may, for an artist or a poet, be contingent on the ever-hidden or secret wound, the technical demands of the objective correlative, the ritual of worship prompted by awe. Dalwood is making paintings of this dilemma, in a manner which takes strength from the sacrifice of sensation.

Within the chemical atmosphere of the synthetic, the manufactured, the industrial and corporate—‘…in the mirrors of a modern bank’ (sang Joni Mitchell) ‘…from the window of a hotel room’—the soul keeps on to ridicule or beauty, age alone certain, unsupported by the poetry and glamour, the colourful fables of meaning, more often on hand to youth.

And somewhere in provincial France, a teacher explains to her students:

‘Antigone is still a child. She’s still little—“Too little” as she says. But she refuses to be little anymore. Not that day. It’s the day she will say “no.” The day she says “no”—the day she dies. What we have here is a perfect example of tragedy. Tragedy is the unavoidable. It’s what we cannot escape, no matter what. It concerns eternity. It concerns what is timeless. It concerns the mechanism, the essence, of humankind.’

And outside, I like to imagine, in the half-light of a winter afternoon, snow begins to fall.

Michael BRACEWELL is a writer, novelist and cultural commentator, born in London in 1958. Educated at the University of Nottingham, he has worked for the British Council in London. His first novel, The Crypto-Amnesia Club, was published in 1988. It was followed by Divine Concepts of Physical Beauty (1989), The Conclave (1992) and Saint Rachel (1995). His most recent novel, Perfect Tense (2001), explores the minutiae of office life. His non-fiction includes a cultural history of England, England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie (1997) and his writing is included in The Faber Book of Pop (1995) and The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Fashion Writing (1999). He writes about contemporary art for Frieze and has also written exhibition catalogues for contemporary artists including Sam Taylor-Wood, Ian Davenport and Gilbert & George. He has written and presented two documentaries for BBC television, a profile of Oscar Wilde and a film about architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner's guide to Surrey. Michael Bracewell has written a non-fiction portrait of the last decade of the 20th century, entitled The Nineties: When Surface was Depth in 2002, and several books about Roxy Music, the latest being Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era (2008).

Dexter DALWOOD lives and works in London, UK. He received his BFA from Central Saint Martins, London, UK and his MFA from the Royal College of Art, London, UK. Dalwood has exhibited widely over the last three decades, including a major survey show at Tate St Ives, UK (2010) that travelled to FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims, France and CAC Málaga, Spain and was subsequently nominated for the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, London, UK in the same year.  Dalwood has also presented solo shows at Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna, Austria (2017), Simon Lee Gallery, Hong Kong (2016), Simon Lee Gallery, London, UK (2014), Kunsthaus Centre Pasquart, Biel, Switzerland (2013) and Nolan Judin, Berlin, Germany (2011). Group exhibitions include Hello World: Revising a Collection, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany (2018), Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (2018), Painters’ Painters, Saatchi Gallery, London, UK (2016), The Painting Show, a touring exhibition organised by The British Council, London, UK that travelled to Aram Art Gallery, Goyang, Korea (2017), Limerick City Gallery of Art, Limerick, Ireland (2017) and CAC, Vilnius, Lithuania (2016), Fighting History, Tate Britain, London, UK (2015), Le Corps de l’Absence, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Châlons-en-Champagne, France (2013) and Dublin Contemporary, Dublin, Ireland (2011). His work is in major private and public collections, including Tate, London, UK, The British Council Collection, London, UK, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, UK, FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims, France and Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany.

These notes on (or around) Dalwood’s exhibition, What is Really Happening? (Simon Lee Gallery, London, 1st March—30th March, 2019) are excerpted from the catalogue for the exhibition; a publication designed and produced in collaboration with Dostoyevsky WANNABE, and available here from the gallery.


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