Simile and Contradiction: The Treachery of Images
By Thomas Piché Jr., Curator of Exhibitions, Daum Museum of Contemporary Art
For twenty years, Richard Deon has explored the visual style and procedures employed by illustrators of social studies textbooks during the 1950s. These unsung artists sought to introduce school-aged children to public institutions, history, and politics through the depiction of easily understood images and situations. Deon draws on their methods and arranges seemingly familiar figures in circumstances that mimic the civic and didactic. However, his compositions place viewers in puzzling territory, where the fictive ciphers of his allegorical equations yield an unreckonable account. Through aesthetic recontextualization, a strategy that includes isolation and dislocation, misidentification, and nonsensical juxtapositions, the artist allows conflicting images and ideas to coexist without a logical outcome. Viewers are invited, instead, to consider the mechanics of authoritative narratives and the ways they mirror and shape the dominant social ethos.
The germinal inspiration for Deon's work is found in a pastime familiar to many inattentive students-the ad hoc alteration of textbook illustrations during class time: a moustache here, an eye patch there, perhaps the addition of an incongruous object or character by the more artistically enabled. The object of these doodles is to limn a visual pun, rather than mere defacement, perhaps to change the gender of a figure, to update an historic fashion, or to make an icon ridiculous. Deon has elaborated this idle occupation into a complex body of artworks that depends on the childhood linkage even as it encompasses sophisticated art- and meaning-making methodologies that the distracted pupil will have to learn remedially.
Deon, himself, studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York under Joseph Kosuth, William Anastasi, and Jennifer Bartlett. From this experience, he gained familiarity with a strain of conceptual art that has close parallels to Dada and Surrealist precedents. He was encouraged to explore the relationship between visual image and mental concept, the formation of meaning, and the utility of recording dreams. These investigations complemented the lasting and decisive impact of a youthful outing to the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, where a single visit juxtaposed the historical drama of Benjamin West's 1770 painting The Death of General Wolfe with the semantically playful One and Three Chairs created by Kosuth in 1965.
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965
Deon's art practice is further informed by his chance discovery, in the late 1970s, of the mid-twentieth-century textbook Visualized Civics, whose illustrations relied on emblematic caricatures and heavy-handed labeling to impart lessons in good citizenship to junior-high-school students. Its visual style was a melding of the didactic graphic methods common to the earliest relief prints, nineteenth century political cartoons, and the agitprop populism of social realism. Deon has ever since extracted characters and situations from its pages and inserted them in kindred scenarios that also seem to illustrate useful nuggets of knowledge and instruction.
Each component of Deon's compositions is derived from found material. In addition to informational texts, Deon scours an array of aesthetic, narrative, and formal sources for his compositional and conceptual repertory. They include commercial advertising, American and European history, and the whole of the twentieth-century avant-garde. He employs a structural scheme in his paintings that, while diverse, conforms to preset parameters and depends on predetermined parts. These factors, when tallied, reveal a conceptually systemic practice. It includes a finite cast of characters, a repetitive choice of settings, a unified manner of representation, and a restricted range of color. Discrete images are deployed in a way that is familiar from the montage techniques first devised by Dada artists in the early twentieth century. In practice, though, Deon is a pseudo-collagist: His works are painted and only bear the inflection of the cut-and-paste aesthetic.
This is a Test, 2000
Explanation with Unused Palette, 2007
During the course of the last twenty years, these elements and procedures have been employed with frequency and in combinations that imply that they are part of a cohesive sign system that follows specific rules. Although these traits are appreciable, viewers eventually conclude that Deon's grammar is one that they have largely forgotten or perhaps never completely understood. For example, we can identify the conceptual terms that individual figures personify; among them, the Instructor (with pointer), the Scientist (in lab coat), the Native-American (in breechcloth), and, a slightly more recondite actor, the Subject (in stiff profile). These characters are placed in artificial, stage-like sets that we variously recognize as classically inspired or the anonymous architecture of meeting halls; a hastily painted seaside backdrop or the high-art ether of an abstract color field. But what are we to make of the reappearing chevrons or the slab-like trough? What about that offspring of a medieval grotesque, apparently of human origin, with its two sturdy and planted legs that support, not a torso (not that we can see, anyway; the articulation between upper and lower is cloaked), but a gesturing hand held in the antique pose of an orator.
It is useful to note here that, in addition to his vocation as a visual artist, Deon is a professional graphic designer. He understands the complex role that images play in mass-communications and that successful graphic design is based on the arrangement of images and words (or other sign systems) so that they clearly connect in purposeful meaning. To convey an idea well, the elements of the message must be of a form that is commonly understood by the intended audience. Sign systems rely on symbols, personification, and allegory, each a shorthand conveyor of ideas that depends on social convention to direct comprehension. Deon knowingly engages these methodologies, linking language and visual expression in formats that parody standard didactic and promotional strategies. In his role as a visual (not graphic) artist, he persistently ruptures the relationship between concept and representation by negating the function of shared societal convention.
Unlike many conceptual artists who employ words as an integral visual element, Deon mostly restricts text to his works' titles, which are encountered as informational labels on gallery walls or as captions in printed material. As important as they ought to be in the construction of communicative signification, Deon composes his titles using a chance technique based on the fragmentary recall of television or radio dialogue. Sometimes, a causal connection can be established between title and images. In Explanation with Unused Palette (above), the larger share of the composition is rendered in grisaille. The eponymous palette, indicated by color squares stacked along the lower horizontal edge, like a watercolor tray, is undisturbed. This implied relationship is ultimately a superficial one; the linkage between the figures, and the figures and the setting remains ambiguous.
The wavering visual metaphor with the longest life in Deon's oeuvre, first appearing in two compositions from 1989 and continuing to be used today, is one I'll refer to as the Object (above). It is a compact planar form, higher than it is wide, with an irregular silhouette seemingly composed with the aid of a French curve. It is usually depicted as a flat black shape, but sometimes its outline contains a pattern or fragmented image. In its earliest appearance (Experts Agree, below), it is the central element in a composition that also depicts the torso of a male figure in a lab coat (the Scientist), who is situated behind a tabletop laid with accoutrements that imply a laboratory setting-glass flasks, a notepad, and stylus. Floating in the center of the composition is a man's face in three-quarter profile, rendered in a way that is familiar from the comic-book-inspired style of Roy Lichtenstein. The head is not shown completely, but is cropped to correspond to a shape that rests on the table below the shoulders and between the two hands of the lab-coated figure. The hands are positioned as if they are about to engage the central form. In the other composition from 1989 (This Is a Test, above), the Object is clearly defined as the central flat black shape. Again, its positioning relates to the profile of a man's head, but the composition is presented with only limited narrative potential, focusing, instead, on an arrangement of so many large blocks of non-objective color.
A painting of 1994, Microscope (above), reiterates the scheme of Experts Agree, except that the area formerly describing the head is now rendered as more of a transparent shadow, but still placed between two hands poised for engagement. Thanks to the work's label, Microscope, we are, at last, disposed to acknowledge the Object's genus as related to this titular laboratory instrument. (When asked to account for the Object, Deon explained that while looking for a stock illustration of a microscope he roughly cut out a picture of one from a magazine, intending to refine its form later. He eventually found that the mystery of the less precise silhouette better suited his purposes. [We might recall the remarkable example of Joan Miró's paintings of 1933, in which Miró simplified collaged images of tools and machines torn from newspapers into flat black, abstract-organic shapes].)
Experts Agree, 1989 and Microscope,1994
Opens Everywhere, 2000
Weehawken 2, 2008
In 2000, Deon returned to the compositional structure of Experts Agree and Microscope in the painting Opens Everywhere (above). In this example, though, the Scientist has been omitted. We are only shown the tabletop, the glass flasks, the notepad, and, centrally placed, the Object, silhouetted against a flat teal-colored background. The notepad bears a sketch in red of the Object, a reference to the erstwhile attention of the absent Scientist.
In another work from 2000, Deon confounds this interpretive sequence when he presents the Object as an objet, rendered as an encaustic on shaped board, cut in the familiar silhouette, and painted black. Just as we have been persuaded to accept the Object's correlation to a microscope, Deon labels the encaustic The Enterprise of England, a title that conjures navigational vessels, not the laboratory. In subsequent compositions, Controlled Burn (2006, above) and Weehawken 2 (2008, above), the Object's kinship to sailing ships is strengthened. All the while, the Object continues to figure in still other compositions in ways that differ from any of these scenarios. Sometimes it is the enigmatic subject of a painting (as in Matter of Perspective [2007, below]), sometimes it appears as a minor player in an otherwise focused tableau (Explanation with Unused Palette [2007, above]).
Matter of Perspective, 2007
Although precise interpretation of any of Deon's paintings is unlikely, the underlying characteristics of his expression allows for provisional allegories. His is a graphics that mirrors the pictorial traditions of historical, civic, and visual experience, and the symbolic depiction of memory, myth, trust, truth, and social engagement. Deon's compositions reward close scrutiny with the revelation of a conceptual kind of history painting, one that is based on a pastiche of shifting tropes well suited to the ahistorical, but deeply nostalgic, nature of contemporary life.
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