This large painting depicts a room with black walls covered in white chalk scrawls. A mattress made up with a white sheet and pillowcases and a sprawling white duvet lies on the dark rug which covers most of the wooden floor. Three red cushions are scattered in the foreground. Behind them, a partially open set of French doors reveals a section of an image of a face, depicted in enlarged black and white newsprint dots. The word ‘FREEDOM’ is painted in white on the black wall at the top of the painting in irregularly-spaced three-dimensional letters. The ‘d’ has been lowered on the wall, separating the word ‘free’ from its suffix. Situationist Apartment May ’68 is the imagined bedroom of the film-maker and philosopher Guy Debord (1931-1994), the leading figure in the Situationist International, a radical movement of artists, philosophers, and poets formed in Paris in 1957. Debord’s most famous work, The Society of the Spectacle (published Paris 1967), is a critique of capitalist ideology seen as manifesting itself through image and commodity fetishism. It advocates vandalism and graffiti as a means of destroying what Debord called the mirage of the spectacle and during the May 1968 uprisings in Paris students painted slogans from the book on buildings.
Dalwood’s paintings focus on the spectacle of celebrity and scandal by depicting hypothetical interiors for pop stars, notorious terrorists and key political figures. His paintings represent imagined places where celebrities may relax in privacy away from the public eye. Each scene is haunted by a glaring absence of people. Michael Archer has observed that: ‘the scenes he paints are more a meditation on representation and its inextricable relationship to absence and death than they are simple homages to or acknowledgements of the famous, the infamous, or the powerful’ (Archer, p.156). Iconic figures and events in Dalwood’s paintings include the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) who implemented purges of his political enemies between 1935-8, the suicide of American rock singer Kurt Cobain in 1994, the catastrophic FBI siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas in 1993, the drowning of The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones in 1969 and O.J. Simpson’s arrest and murder trial in 1995. These large scale tableaux identify a specific historical moment associated with a celebrity and simultaneously pass comment on the present. In this respect they are allegorical and may be seen as a reinvention of the genre of history painting.
In preparation for each painting Dalwood makes an A4-sized collage of images cut from magazines and other printed materials which he carefully copies onto the canvas. The awkward spatial relationships within his paintings are a deliberate result of this process. The rooms the artist depicts are drawn from his imagination or written accounts rather than being copied from photographs. Situationist Apartment May ’68 mixes images of interior design, popular culture, and political and art history, all linked by a common time period. The face seen through the doors is a famous image from San Francisco’s hippy district of Haight-Ashbury, a reference to the American counter-culture that was contemporaneous with, but very different from, the French student movement of 1968. Debord’s call for mass vandalism is referred to by the chalky scribbles on the apartment walls. These scrawls are in fact copies of two paintings by the American Cy Twombly (born 1928) made in 1970, on the left Untitled (Rome) (collection the artist) and on the right Untitled (New York City) (Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne). The juxtaposition of Debord and Twombly is deeply ironic; commanding some of the highest prices of any living painter, Twombly’s paintings may be seen to represent the pinnacle of commodity fetishism. Although contemporaries, the two men are thus ideologically as well as geographically opposed. Dalwood’s use of the word ‘freedom’ at the top of the painting may be seen as pointing to a shift in the word’s significance, from the 1968 connotations of intellectual and political liberation from capitalism, to the contemporary consumerist obsession with freedom of choice. Situationist Apartment May ’68 brings a focused political commentary to Dalwood’s work. By making explicit reference to Debord’s attack on the culture of spectacle and commodities in relation to Twombly, Dalwood critiques the subject of his own paintings as well as painting itself.
Dexter Dalwood: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, London 2000
Michael Archer, ‘Dexter Dalwood,’ Artforum, vol.39, no.4, December 2000, p.156
Dexter Dalwood: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles 2002, reproduced in colour p.17
Ben Borthwick/Elizabeth Manchester
March 2003/September 2004