by David M. Roth
From the blankets that swaddle us as infants to the fashions we don as adults, textiles serve as potent signifiers of class, race, gender identity and much else. Yet they can also disguise what they purport to reveal. Dana Hart-Stone’s works, though they contain nary a thread, have always done a bit of both. They engage viewers in a game of perceptual hide-and-seek by flipping our attention between macro and micro views, representation and abstraction. As such, the artist’s most recent cycle of photo-derived paintings, The Life and Times of Plaid, could be seen as a continuation of his longstanding practice of hiding things in plain sight, had the illusion he so carefully constructs, of geometrically patterned fabric, not become the exhibition’s ostensible theme.
To understand this proposition, which is nearly impossible to comprehend in reproduction, it helps to know that the artist builds compositions from photographs culled from his collection of vintage images of the West. His method is a canny inversion of the one employed by Chuck Close. Where Close uses precisely controlled paint pours to create photorealistic portraits, Hart-Stone turns recognizable pictures of people and things into seamless collages that, at a distance, appear to be inscrutable geometric mazes – akin in appearance to tribal rugs. Up close, you can see that they consist of multiple photos of similar subjects, shot in a variety of sizes and formats over different decades, from the Victorian era to about the 1970s. Each composition is a trove of Americana that functions both as a study of rural mores and a condensed history of photography
itself. The final products, which the artist calls paintings (but are really hand-painted photo collages), are unique prints, assembled digitally and inkjet-printed onto canvas with UV-treated acrylic ink.
The title piece, a montage of 616 photos arrayed scrapbook-style across five canvases, departs from the artist’s usual faux-textile treatment. It asks, who in the American past has donned plaid, and under what circumstances? Where in the British Isles plaid once signaled clan identity, it seems to have been shorn of any such distinctions after having arrived here. In Hart-Stone’s depiction, plaid is the most democratic of patterns, worn by young and old, black and white, working-class folks and professionals. To amplify that observation, the artist hand-colors the plaid portions of each black-and-white photo in Day-Glo hues that call to mind similar methods used in contemporary fashion ads, except that instead vivifying the subjects, Hart-Stone’s colorizations give them – and the entire composition — the aura of a lucid dream: fathomable but just out of reach.
The artist, 63, grew up in northeastern Montana and Bozeman, and his work seems to be a career-length paeon to his youth and, very possibly, that of his parents and grandparents. He acquires source images from auctions, garage sales and the internet with a particular emphasis on fairs, parades, family gatherings, farms, rodeos, circus acts and the like. Cars figure prominently, too, providing a convenient hydrocarbon dating method, should hairstyles and clothing not do the trick. And while nostalgia for bygone eras is clearly an animating force, his process situates him closer to the present and to his formative years, the 1960s. His serial repetition of images, for example, recalls Warhol, while his fashioning of photos into what look like Rorschach blots, brings to mind Bruce Conner’s inkblot drawings. That said, neither Warhol or Conner made anything that behaves remotely like the mandala-shaped pieces that Hart-Stone executes on round canvases, his first foray into that format. In these and other similarly constructed works, passages that resemble stains reveal, upon close inspection, concrete evidence of identifiable objects, like the constellation of bullet-nosed 1952 Fords that stare out from the center of Trunk
Diving, encircling a spoked wheel. But to spot them, you to have to look hard, and even then, you might not recognize what you’re seeing. Hart-Stone’s other key device is to reverse and conjoin images of people and cars in elongated, funhouse-mirror-like concatenations. Combined, they create a kaleidoscopic effect, like the aerial sequences in Busby Berkeley films.
In New Tricks, where the artist reverts to plaid stripes (his MO before this exhibition), hand-colored photos of dogs and their owners arrayed in vertical bands like film strips, draw comparisons to Michal Rovner’s recent video works. But where Rovner tackles weighty issues like migration and identity, Hart-Stone grinds no ideological axes; his main impetus seems to be having fun. The most persuasive evidence of that comes in the exhibition’s centerpiece, Distracted by Ric Rac, a send-up of small-town pageantry. In this, marching bands, dogs, cowboys, wagon trains and old ladies wearing funny hats circle the canvas, bound together by photographed lengths of ric rac, an old-time method of hemming clothes in zig-zag patterns. Ringing the edges of the picture are repeating images of a woman piloting an open-cockpit plane. They sit at the top of human pyramid reminiscent of the Flying Wallendas, a high-wire act famous throughout much of the 20th century for executing daredevil maneuvers of exactly this sort.
Whether such images tug at your heartstrings matters little. The artist is far more interested in producing visual impact than in serving up nostalgia or historical commentary. Like carnival barkers and circus-tent showmen of yore, Hart-Stone, using materials and methods of reproduction that span three centuries, understands how to reel in viewers and hold them rapt.
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Dana Hart-Stone: “The Life and Times of Plaid” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through March 7, 2020.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.