Saturday, February 9, 2008

The artist who stole Christmas

Kevin Dean is (in theory) a conceptual artist and (in fact) the director of Selby Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design. He’s a very cool guy. But I have to tell you …

Kevin Dean hates Santa Claus. And, while we’re on the subject, Christmas.

This exhibit of his bizarre installations proves it beyond doubt. Brutal imagery—well, OK, sickeningly cute imagery with brutal implications—predominates in this surreal mindwalk. Cutesy-pie snowmen, 3D Last Suppers, and jars full of indefinable somethings out of The Other or Frank Zappa’s Kenny’s Little Creatures.

Dean, as post-modernist, conceptual artists do, has raised the level of difficulty for himself. It’s not enough to paint a painting. No. Hell no. Much of his work is in the form of maddeningly specific installations: arrangements of art objects and an insane collector’s dream junkyard of kitsch religious and Christmassy crap. The stuff is cool to look at. But you figure it’s a pain in the ass to set up exactly so.

Dean's art speaks in two different voices, like an overdubbed recording. One voice speaks with the highfalutin dialect of artistic symbolism from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Mary’s blue robe=purity, etc. Don’t forget your artistic decoder ring! That high, deep symbolic language resonates against styrene snowmen and rotating Christmas color wheels. But even that isn’t tough enough.

Dean not only speaks in two voices. He puts his quotes inside quotes. Yep.

Dean’s created the art in character: the work you see is the creation of Dean’s altered ego–a Midwestern, hippy artist named Brandon Whitcomb who, in the implied backstory, followed the Via Dolorosa of the American suffering artist. Whitcomb suffered and died for his art, yep. But, in the spirit of John Wayne, he killed himself by eating, smoking and drinking to death. It’s an all-American martyrdom. A secret mourning for a love lost in a Kent State-style massacre.

This soft, sweet drama lurks inside the hard candy shell of Dean's harsh satire. He takes it seriously; at the same time, he doesn't. It's hard to get a fix on the man. Dean's art reminds me of those 3D icons of Jesus. The image changes, depending on how you look at it. It's hard to nail him down. No evil pun intended ...

But what's he really saying? Is Dean mocking the artist-martyr archetype or the harsh system that screws artists over? What's he really think?

Don't ask me.

It’s up to you to figure it out. He isn’t trying to ruin Christmas. But Dean isn’t doing your job either.

What he’s doing, it seems to me, is building a world. He’s been working at it for 23 years. Hell, I can’t claim objectivity. I remember Dean, back in the early 1990s back when I tried to start an arts paper in the beautiful arts town by the sea, you know, Sarasota. Dean. Putting the bits and pieces of this stuff together. Lecturing students (in character as some academic shmuck) about the life and death of Whitcomb.

I love this stuff. I can’t claim to define what he’s up to.

Like God’s world, the world Dean made is damaged. As are the people in it.

Beneath all the kitsch and crap, the sense of the sacred fights to come out.

It haunts me.

Like those stories they used to tell in church when I was a kid.

Or Santa.

‘Brandon Whitcomb: A Retrospective After Life’
Short version: If you meet Santa on the road, kill him.

When: Through March 8
What: Kevin Dean's mind-blowing art installation.
Where: Mack B. Projects, 500 Tallevast Rd.
Phone: 359-0654

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