It’s tempting to look at David Dawson’s “Untitled Four Letter Word,” an oil-on-plywood series from his upcoming Zone one exhibit composed of four large, black rectangles, and say, “So what? It’s four pieces of wood painted black.”
Even the artist responsible for the black rectangles admits, “People have been giving me s••t about this show.”
But the minute Dawson starts talking about the meanings behind that piece and the seven other works that comprise Epithets, you’re likely to feel more than a little sheepish about your initial skepticism: The surface simplicity of the works is sorely misleading.
Yes, Epithets features a collection of squares and rectangles, painted in solid primary and secondary colors. But the exhibit, as Dawson explains, is really about prejudices — prejudices about race, language, and art itself. (Not bad for a guy who hated art when his mother dragged him to museums as a child, and whose first forays into the art world were limited to drawings of battle scenes and rock ‘n’ roll bands.)
Epithets officially began to take shape almost a year ago, fueled by a simple-yet-loaded phrase that Dawson says had been swimming around his head for years: “They all look the same.” The piece of the same title features five oil-on-plywood rectangular panels of varying lengths, hung one underneath the other, and each painted a different color: black, white, red, yellow and brown. Dawson determined the size of the panels by computer-generating each word in the title in a standard Times font, so that the length of each panel “mirrors” the word it represents. And the colors of the rectangles represent races: African-American, Caucasian, Native American, Oriental, Hispanic.
“‘They all look the same’ is such a common phrase,” says Dawson. “And in a way, I’m just simply throwing that phrase in people’s faces, but I’m also saying, ‘Look at the differences.’ I used crayon kinds of colors, because that’s such a simple, childlike way to look at the world.”
The five companion pieces to “They All Look the Same” — “Hamburger,” “Jelly Roll,” “Banana,” “Apple” and “Oreo” — similarly explore issues of race, this time exposing internal prejudices within individual races. Dawson uncovered these terms — each used to ridicule a person of the same racial heritage who appears to covet the characteristics of another race — through ethnological research and everyday usage (“I’ve heard Native Americans called ‘apples’ if they’re trying to act ‘white,'” he points out). These pieces, too, are done in black, white, red, yellow and brown — this time on paper, representing their easy destructibility. The elongated, narrow rectangles (a reminder of the narrow-mindedness of the labels’ assumptions) are marked by “cut-outs” — i.e., “Banana” is a yellow rectangle with the center cut out to reveal a white rectangle, meaning a “Banana” is a an Oriental who tries to be “white.” Similarly, “Oreo” is a term for an African-American who embraces white culture, so this piece is black on the outside, white on the inside.
“I thought about doing paintings of the foods themselves,” Dawson explains, “but I’m more interested in conceptual and minimalist art, so I stuck with this format. And the box form works, I think, because those kinds of labels do put people in ‘boxes.'”
As with “They All Look the Same,” Dawson computer-generated each word, enlarged it, and the rectangle became the shape of the word.
Don’t think this is all too serious, though. “Those terms have negative connotations, of course,” Dawson says, “but they also have a humorous side, with the food references. It’s basically social derision.”
Dawson’s sense of humor similarly, uh, colors “Say Orange Twenty Times,” a series of 20 identical bright orange paintings, each measuring 22 inches by 22 inches and created to hang in a horizontal line with the same small space between each. This piece is about prejudices, too — artistic prejudices. “There’s generally a prejudice against orange, in terms of art,” he points out. “It’s considered tacky. And while it’s starting to become kind of popular in the fashion world, it’s still a color most people can’t deal with. I was talking to a psychologist friend of mine, and he was saying that, in Jungian psychology, orange is considered to be the color of anger. It doesn’t seem like the color of anger to me. It seems more humorous. And a lot of Hispanic cultures use it in terms of sensuousness.” (Orange also happens to be Dawson’s favorite color.)
“Say Orange Twenty Times” also debunks accepted standards of how art should be presented. “Most people’s perception of art is that it’s a certain size and it’s hung in an exhibition space a certain distance apart, and usually there’s some kind of recognizable image,” Dawson explains. Usually, that “recognizable” image is not a bright orange plywood panel, identically multiplied 20 times, no matter if they are all a certain size and hung a certain distance apart.
Finally, “Untitled Four Letter Word” tackles prejudices about color and language. Dawson created the four large (96 inches by 210 inches), identical black rectangles based on the shape and size he felt was an appropriate exaggeration of the four-letter-word idea. “Since a four-letter word is usually an expletive, it lends itself to exaggeration,” he explains. “I’m exaggerating the size of the letters and using an elongated rectangular format.”
Dawson chose the color black for this piece because of its often negative connotations, which he views as unfair. “To me, it’s a beautiful color,” he points out, “but some people are scared to death of it.” He also calls into question the notion of what a four-letter word actually is. “In English-speaking cultures, just the phrase ‘four-letter word’ has a negative connotation,” Dawson says. “But ‘love’ is a four-letter word. So is ‘nose.'”
While some artists insist that they couldn’t care less whether viewers understand the meanings of their works, or pronounce that their works have no meanings outside themselves, Dawson is not one of them. While talking with him about Epithets, it becomes apparent that it’s all-important for him that viewers understand the meanings he intended the pieces to convey. To that end, he plans to post explanatory wall texts next to the works at the Zone One show. “To deny that it’s important to me whether viewers ‘get’ my work would be ridiculous,” he says. “A lot of artists refuse to talk about their work, but at the same time they title the pieces. And that automatically implies meaning. … To say that a work of art is a thing unto itself without any content is absurd.”
Epithets is a striking departure from Dawson’s previous work. While living and exhibiting in New York City for almost 15 years, he created art that was often about the psychology of remembering, influenced in part by the disintegrating wall surfaces of the city’s run-down buildings. Similarly, his last solo show at Zone One was about the act of remembering: He applied layer upon layer of different colors of paint on large canvases, then sanded and scraped the layers away to reveal the “history” of the paintings. But “I wanted to move away from that,” says Dawson, “because it’s so sentimental. I wanted to move toward something that was more immediate, and not about the past 500 years.”
Dawson isn’t sure his current work, Epithets, would have come to fruition if he were still living in New York. Returning to his Southern roots (he grew up near Robbinsville), he became more viscerally reminded of the very real racial prejudices that still exist. “People are prejudiced everywhere,” he points out, “but in the North, those prejudices aren’t expressed quite as much. And it’s almost a way of language in the South, because phrases about prejudice are a part of everyday usage.”
Dawson hopes that if viewers take the time to look at the work and read his wall texts, they’ll understand. “This kind of work can be problematic, because it’s not [composed of] recognizable images,” he acknowledges. “It’s like people have trouble with Finnegan’s Wake, because, even though it’s highly readable, the form isn’t recognizable to people.”
In Epithets, Dawson asks that viewers suspend their preconceptions — about art and about their lives.