Dale Chisman : In Retrospect
Jan 13 – Feb 27, 2011
"I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one's arms again."
Among the artists to emerge in Colorado during the 1980's, Dale Chisman occupies a stellar position ・a position of achievement that is fused to his authoritative and generous intelligence and to his ability to risk everything on each painting-adventure. He is in a place by himself. The surprisingly diverse ways his influence has taken hold is ample proof of this statement. He deeply affected the evolution ・if not the look ・of contemporary art in Colorado. For that and for the freshness and intelligence of his work he deserves this posthumous retrospective.
Throughout his productive career Chisman remained loyal to abstraction ・particularly the kinds of abstraction that derive from Abstract Expressionism. The initial feelings of familiarity with Chisman's art come from the clear and pleasant sense of that connection. But such oversimplifications can't account for the hybridized practices that flourished in the margins of his paintings - practices with clear affinities to other "schools" and movements. His paintings are paintings ・created with only paint and canvas. Chisman incorporates no high-tech hi-jinks, no "interdisciplinary" strategies. On the other hand, Chisman did not leave abstraction where he found it. For abstract painters of Chisman's generation, removed from the initial revelations of Abstract Expressionism by two or more decades, the temptation was to turn those revelations into decorative cliche ・"apocalyptic wallpaper" as Harold Rosenberg noted. So for those of us who tended to think of abstraction as a closed chapter in art history, Chisman's ravishing and inventive work came as a delightful shock
Although Chisman's work was as compelling and complex as earlier generations of abstractionists, it doesn't feel overburdened by the tragic, sublime and religious themes through which those painters often expressed their moral commitment and their values. (Having said that, I confess to intuiting a reverberation of Barnett Newman's "tragic sublime" in Chisman's affinity for Newman's "zip" ・the vertical band that crosses the center of so many of his canvases, unifying and controlling the surrounding chaos.) Nor does Chisman's art seem linked to alienation, political stridency, or hostility towards an uncomprehending audience. He certainly admired epic and moral themes but he invented his own through the very appearance of the abstract style that he chose to develop. Chisman can be gritty, soulful, restless and heroic but he doesn't seem to have an axe to grind. The pleasure of how paint can sometimes look on canvas at certain right moments, the way a passage of tender color can suffuse a work with meditative delicacy ・those are the experiences that consistently draw us into the inner reaches of his painting. Whatever his anxieties may have been they were generally tempered by a strong undertow of exhilaration - a synthesis not always so stable. It's apparent, particularly in Chisman's darker, melancholic works that he was also pursued by the disconsolate spirit of what Federico Garcia-Lorca described as "the duende." "The duende (or the demon) and the angel" observes Edward Hirsch "... are vital spirits of creative imagination. They come when something enormous is at risk... when the self pushes against its limits, when death is possible...It is both rapturous and terrifying."[ Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel, 2002 (Harcourt Books, New York), pgs. xiv-xv
Viewing a completed work of art we often invent a story of how it came into being that is likely to be irrelevant, especially in the case of an artist like Chisman whose process blends virtuoso control over his materials with an inexhaustible willingness to improvise. For example, over the years I would occasionally encounter a new painting by him that seemed substantively different than any of the others that preceded it ・as though Chisman had discovered a new way to make a picture. A lesser painter might have been tempted to turn this discovery into an entirely new vocabulary ・to reinvent his "style." But the discovery happened to suit Chisman only that once and never resurfaced.
For Chisman, the question of "How to paint?" is intimately related with "What to paint?" And so the question of what "image" might be in Chisman's painting arises. There are those paintings that seem to extend the concept of landscape, others that reference and echo the figure. There are paintings whose particularly painterly characteristics ・depth, color, texture ・seem to relate to the artist's own experience in private and specific ways. His evocative titles often suggest themes of a narrative or poetic tenor. Like the abstractionists who preceded him Chisman appears to reject the notion that painting can be an autonomous object, self-sufficient and seemingly free of any relationship to a particular subject outside itself. Like them he demonstrates great faith in the reservoir of communicable feelings and images that reside in each human psyche and which can be made palpable through paint, gesture, and surface. The "subject" in a Chisman painting emerges through an emotional network with the artist and the viewer. Mental states, emotional, expressive and expository can feel as real as any view of the surrounding world - uncannily sharp in focus. Chisman is aware that even the most abstract images conjure people and things, that the mind insists on these links and his forms play with that insistence. A title such as King, Warrior, Magician, Lover speaks directly to this wish. Chisman rarely spoke about these issues. He was always willing to let the paintings do the talking ・to get them to disclose what lay behind or beyond them.
I have liked and been intrigued by Chisman's paintings since I first saw them in the 1980's. Their likeability is important to me ・and their materiality. Chisman is a very physical painter and somewhere in every painting the paint is applied in a highly palpable manner ・the act of touch is always inscribed. He's capable of whipping up lavish surfaces with furrows and ridges that have the extravagance of cake frosting. He can also be lean, ascetic and austere. I'm especially partial to Chisman's loopy, extravagant doodles as in Cross Tide 2 and Cake. The "doodles" create a cat's cradle of lines that he distills in a very classical way, transmuting scruffy surfaces into paintings of great formal integrity. Doodling, like Chisman's ubiquitous scribbles, references the subconscious in a very conscious way and however funky his paintings can look they always have gravitas.
I can so easily recall Dale's mischievous, impish face framed by his lank blond hair and wreathed in cigarette smoke. Although I never spoke with Dale about this, I believe that poetry with all its emotional allusions was the art form closest to his own. I think he had an instinctive resistance to any aesthetic ideology - it seems foreign to him. For Chisman those kinds of allegiances were of little help in making a picture. But poetry could move the imagination beyond all ideological structures. Poetry is an art that uses technique to go beyond technique, that ruptures the geometry of it own imposed forms, and that at its best leaves the imprint of its creators' consciousness in every passage and in every question posed to the passage that follows it. For Chisman, painting like poetry, is not a problem to be solved, but rather, a place in which to dwell. The works in this exhibition give the rest of us dazzling glimpses of that country.
Simon Zalkind 2010