Dennis Congdon: Recent Paintings (essay by Joseph R. Wolin)
Dennis Congdon pictures ruins. Sometimes the ruins are those of classical antiquity, such as the top-heavy stack of fluted column drums in Ignis fatuus. They teeter precariously, like a pile of logs amidst semitropical Mediterranean foliage; a scrolling ribbon in the lower left resembles a bit of discarded drapery, or a strip of column fluting peeled away as corrugated skin. More bits of fallen architecture litter the ground in Midden, along with heads, an arm, and some hands, ostensibly fragments of broken statuary. A tablet with images of gesticulating hands, perhaps spelling out a once-urgent message in sign language, lies in the middle distance, along with a discarded painting of a veiled figure, the grieving Agamemnon from a Pompeian fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet. (That reference reveals the disembodied arm sticking up out of the ground behind the painting to be that of Iphegenia, throwing up her hands in a pathetic gesture of supplication as she is carried off.) A palm tree growing out of an upturned Corinthian capital, with which it formally rhymes, signals a resilient nature’s encroachment upon the remains of once-great human civilization. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
At other times, the ruins are decidedly more modern, even modernist. A mound of cast-off paintings sits on barren ground in Untitled (pile); the recognizable ones, the ones with their faces showing, all seem to be post-Cubist Picassos—not exceptionally famous examples, but portraits, still-lives, and figural compositions we feel we could identify, given time enough and Zervos. Thrown out in a studio clearance or stacked high for a bonfire of the vanities, the paintings appear consigned to the dust-heap of (art) history, the crowning achievements of a century—only the last one!—as remote from us, and as irretrievable, as antiquity.
Congdon’s interest in the remains of the ancient world is, in part, a personal one, dating back to a formative year spent as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome during the early 1980s. Yet his depictions of depopulated fields scattered with the debris of the past depend less on observation from life than on Romantic visions of antiquity. Such were embodied not only in the sentiments of poets such as Shelley, but in the sensibility of a long line of painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who limned classical ruins as a means of exploring their feelings about their own time, feelings of nostalgia for the past, yearning for lost ideals, and trepidation about an increasingly industrialized future. The portrayal of antique vestiges is, as Susan Sontag said about photography, “an elegiac art, a twilight art.” And, like the subjects of photography, the representation of ruins is “touched with pathos.”
The scrap-heaps of modern paintings, too, resonate with this same kind of melancholy, despite the fact that their ruinous condition stands more as metaphor than real-world cognate. But the ideals of modernism—utopian, positivist, even humanist—now seem as lost as those of Greece and Rome, as much the object of our nostalgia, as much the antithesis of our present age, now a postindustrial one, staggering on the precipice of its own decline and fall. Westward the course of empire takes its way.
Yet the piles of canvases also possess a personal meaning for the artist, and not only because he is a painter, formed in the twentieth century, and a teacher, passing on the legacy of his forebears to several generations of students. In Visuvi, against a strange sunset that might have adorned the side of a van, a pyre of paintings sits in a crater, either hastily excavated for their immolation or, perhaps, the caldera of Vesuvius. An odd skull, or a skull-shaped rock, lies near the lower edge; might it signify the Golgotha of art, surrounded here by a radiating mandorla? The paintings in the heap appear mostly abstract, in several generic allover patterns, whether pointillist (shades of Seurat!), camouflage (Warhol!) or stripes (almost anyone!). On a large central canvas in the stack, a Picassoid face peers out, but close examination establishes that it derives less from the master’s Neoclassical period than from Congdon’s own oeuvre. A similar head gazes upward, half buried in the ground in Midden. And another, apparently colossal, balances on its side, surveying the blasted landscape strewn with debris in Afrodite (serpentine), its left side sheared off to form a tabletop landscape of its own, complete with an arrangement of bright pink planks that suggest, variously, the head’s geometric innards, a modernist sculpture, or a group of fallen menhirs.
The paintings in Pile 13 feature more stripes, fields of dots, and a huge staring head on its side, now perched on a canyon ledge that must once have seen Wile E. Coyote plummet . Yet others bear images—a fist clutching a palm frond, a column drum—that appear to have come from Congdon’s repertoire, and a small one, in the lower left, leaning on a rock, carries what may well be a Picasso portrait. A section of entablature ornamented with volute scrolls and acanthus leaves sits on the pile at the upper left. Classical antiquity, modern art, and Congdon’s paintings are conflated, interchangeable, all discarded and destined for the junkyard. Pile 13 seems to sum up the artist’s concerns, indicting the entire history of culture and art, not least his own, as ruined, obsolete, doomed to fade away into memory. The death of painting, long averred, is writ large and literal, a wry conceit that Congdon, with dark humor, turns back upon himself.
For Congdon, of course, equates his own art with the lost glories of Greco-Roman civilization and modernism with tongue firmly in cheek. Romantic pathos at the passing of empire cannot help but ring false in the twenty-first century, and a painter’s self-doubt, swelling to overweening extremes, produces only comic effect. Ours is not a moment of nostalgic yearning for suspect regimes. Even the artist’s technique—preliminary drawings cut into stencils used to add a final layer of incisive, impersonal outlines—recalls the funny papers, as his heaps of paintings bring to mind the mocking cartoons of comparable piles of things in late Guston. And Congdon’s palette of off pastels and clashing acidic hues reads as resolutely unsober, ill suited to grief. They look like the Saturday-morning children’s television of our youth and practically crackle with energy. If, as Yve-Alain Bois once posited, painting’s is the task of mourning, then, in Congdon’s hands, mourning becomes electric. — Joseph R. Wolin