painting

Vive le Salon!

This piece was first published in 2008. Throwback Friday!

The Art Salon takes the art dialogue away from the exhibitionism of the public square, back to the privacy of personal circles, even the intimacy of the home. Salons first became popular among the nobility of 17th century Europe as a time when the comtesse and her girlfriends got together to hear about things that mattered – in the salon, their equivalent of our living room. Salons became a form of meeting integral to the shape of society – at least one gave rise to the French Revolution in the 18th century. For the trophy wife, the revolutionary, the avant-garde artist, salons have always been about standing up to the status quo.

Recently, I went to one such inspiring salon evening. Ryan Callis, an artist, and Chris Davidson, a poet, just hosted their fifth installment in Seal Beach, California, near Los Angeles. With the blessing of their wives, these two co-workers and neighbors open up the Davidson home every other month to other rabble-rousers and creatives. As the sun was setting, a few dozen friends and strangers milled about the front lawn, porch, and kitchen, and finally settled into the living room. That night, we heard a pair of artists speak, viewed a slideshow of Nokia-sponsored photos of India, listened to a poet recite from her book, and were acoustically serenaded by a rock outfit. Weeks later, I catch up with Ryan Callis via email, and tell him how smart he and his compatriots are for luring the art crowd to their surf and turf.

So is your artist salon REALLY called, “The Society of Interested Persons” ?
Ha, ha, ha, yes sir, it is. I have an affinity for creating titles as a potential for fun word combinations. My MFA show at Claremont, with Evan Roberts, was called The Grand Order of the Salt Dippers. We both surf, so we were “The Grand Order”. I think “The Society of Interested Persons” has a fun ring about it. For a poet, Chris had called it the very un-fun “Second Saturday Salon”. Yawn. I spiced it up.

What kinds of people typically show up to the Salon?
As founders and key inviters, Chris and I look to our friends and families as repeat customers. Next come those that visiting artists and lecturers bring. A few neighbors and an occasional passerby join in. We run in different circles and have a ten-year age difference between us. So we already mix it up with our own crowds. But maybe our crowd can be summed up best as 18-70 years old, poor to rich, Christians and not Christians, G.E.D. to Ph.D.

Do they fight?
It’s awesome because all these folks get together in a somewhat neutral environment, compared to, say, a gallery. Because we have breaks between presenters, I think it is amazing to watch everyone mingle, network, and be able to have topics for conversation.

Are art salons on the endangered list of art world species?
I don’t know. I know that in this day and age, anything without money or drool-inducing entertainment is automatically a rare species. But I observe the art world as more community-based – more potential for interesting community than most other worlds.

What in your opinion makes for a good salon gathering?

One in which quality of presenters and the enthusiasm of the crowd come together! A good salon is just an awesome evening all around; you can just feel it.

I still wanna know what unexpected things have happened.

Drunk, chatty housewives have been the surprise! Lots of inappropriate commentary or questions during presentations, but always innocent enough and funny in hindsight. There was another time when a presenter’s dad came to hear her speak, but thought a college party a few houses down was our salon! He ended up hanging out at that rowdy “salon” for two hours until he wised up. All alcohol-related things I guess.

Tell me something that’s printable about your co-host Chris.

Chris is an awesome poet. He is a man of many ideas and little time to make them happen, which is where I come in handy. He is also a very generous guy and he’s let us invade his house.

Tell me something about what YOU do when not co-hosting the Salon? You’ve got that solo show at the gallery coming up.
Yes. When I am not salon-ing I am painting, surfing, family-ing, and praying. I make art; the salon is a part of that. A less-cool-than-painting part of that. Oh, and I teach university sometimes. The salon is my way of acting out Dada urges.

What’s in store for next time? I missed the drunk housewives last time, I guess.
Next for the salon will be Chris as poet, me as the artist, and a local singer/songwriter named Barrett Johnson. Barrett is awesome, and I did the art for his album. It’s a question mark as to our lecturer, although on my mind is local and surfboard-shaping legend Rich Harbour, or Otis College of Art’s curator, and an interesting gal, Meg Linton. People keep asking for our work to be featured, but we had felt it was too soon, until now. Los Angeles artists Lynne Berman and Steve Roden, as well as LA critic James Scarborough have tentatively committed to the next, next salon. That would blow my mind.

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With All the Things

The press release for Daniel Domig’s exciting new exhibition With all the Things We Build and Make (Thrust Projects, New York City, September 5 – October 12) states the following:

The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

At first glance, it’s not at all clear what this might mean. How do elements relinquish and accept anything? Is this just one more bloated, incomprehensible bit of gallery-drivel? One might be tempted to think so. Yet, when one actually engages the pieces and considers Domig’s interest in the time-honored religious concept of “the Creator/Creature distinction,” it all becomes clear. Domig’s figures serve as analogues to himself, not in a clichéd, autobiographical way, but in the raw, existential dimension.

As Christian tradition has it, humans are created beings, and lose their bearings the minute they begin to conceive of themselves as the Creator (“ye shall be as gods,” the serpent whispered, according to the Genesis account). However, it’s clear that humans are creators of a sort, made in God’s image, carrying on His creative work in the world. There’s a challenge there, a reflexive calling, for humanity to create without losing sight of “createdness.” Humans are to see themselves as distinct from God, yet wholly dependent upon Him, working and doing His work. St. Paul said it this way: “…He is not far from each one of us. In Him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:27b-28a)

This theme literally pulses in and out of Domig’s exhibition, as if the systolic and diastolic rhythms of the human life were nothing less than alternating considerations of autonomy/dependence dichotomy. Figures move into concrete materiality, and slip back out again, lost in abstract, shadowy brushstrokes and smudged patches of mixed color. Process emerges as a prominent theme in Domig’s work, but this is not the sterile, lifeless reflexivity of late modernism. There is a hopeful search here, a question, left hanging from the unfinished clause of the exhibition’s title (“with all the things we build and make…” what?).

A survey of Domig’s earlier work articulates a theme that continues to emerge in his work today: the miracle of animation in the work. It may be process, lines, paint, smudges, but it is also something being born and inhaling. Sometimes it feels like something dying, and exhaling. But it’s always a liminal state.

In the case of the ceramic sculpture that announces the exhibition, we see a detail human face descend (or ascend?) into primitive, pressed clay. It is at once refined, surreal, and primitive, a bit like Adam, freshly minted from the dust.

Dull grays, blacks, and browns dominate the works, but nearly every painting-somewhere-features an alarming, aggressive color, often in form of a small line, or detail. It’s not as if these colors vie with the darkness, however. Domig, remarkably, establishes them as co-existent, part and parcel of his eclectic work. This eclecticism leans toward a two-dimensionality, and so we might be tempted to consider Domig in the tradition of collage, but, in fact, his work subtly oscillates in depth. For instance, the striking figure in The Best Show (2007) gives us a square canvas, and a painted frame, and figure that seems at once behind the frame and in front of it, a cellophane-like membrane inhibiting all but his hands. The bright green lines piercing in from the edges to the center create a tension with the largely grey underworld that resides at the painting’s core. We might also note the subject’s eyes are obscured, a common element in Domig’s work. The painting does not revel in surface, as in much postmodern collage. Nor does it reach for the alluring, eroticized two-dimensional ornamentation found in the work of Domig’s Austrian predecessor Gustav Klimt. Rather, we see an existential dimension about to reveal itself. It is here, hovering on the edge of full existence, that the figure negotiates with being, autonomy, and its own process of becoming.

Sheer “becoming” as an “event,” is the sort of thing that excited Gilles Deleuze about Francis Bacon’s work, and we see something of that primal energy here. But Domig sees this concept in a wider frame, that of his own becoming within the Christian view of sanctification. Though it is misleading to see Domig’s pieces as intensely auto-biographical, some works grant us permission in that direction.

Within Tradition strikes such a reflective, self-conscious note, as the painting-within-the-painting theme manifests itself here as a man turned cabinet of curiosities. He’s at once a canvas himself, slipping into (or out of?) three dimensional materiality, the edges of his face spreading outward like newly cracked egg. He holds his paintings dear, carefully fixed under clasped hands, but we cannot avoid the suggestion, amid all that red, that we are witnessing an anatomy lesson, a flayed and open soul, and a shadow of a man holds center stage within him. Even that negative figure is upheld, however, by a mysterious third hand, white as milk, transparent as sky. We are clearly invited to see these paintings as illustrative of the figure’s interior world, and, by extension, Domig’s own creative struggle.

In a remarkably prescient observation, the art scholar Velton Wagner connects this arrangement of paintings with an altar screen in a Christian church.1 Indeed, the mode of expression, while intensely dark and personal in the painting and more ecumenical/historical in a church, does achieve a common goal: to unite the small stories, and fragments of stories, into a larger whole. That the paintings detail contradictory things is simply to tell the truth about the contradictions of human nature. To unite them is to create a man, and, perhaps, chart a large meta-story of redemption, as in this altarpiece from the chapel of Schloss Mittersill, Austria, a sacred space Domig has frequented throughout his life.

Indeed, one of the show’s most interesting dimensions is the exhibition design itself, envisioned and constructed by the artist himself. Again, it is process exposed, but animated. Rough, wooden figures watermarked and unsanded, are stitched together in a rustic fellowship: wooden frames/bodies, with painted heads atop each, framed by an “X”/cross pattern not unlike the saint depicted in the altarpiece above. To accommodate this unorthodox presentation, some paintings had to be placed sideways in the torsos of these figures. This creates a tension for those who wish to view the work cleanly, but Domig doesn’t permit such clinical niceties. Like the man in Within Tradition, they are contained and held in a body that may or may not be willing to release them.

The artist’s product does, in the end, stand apart from the artist. The moment a work is declared done, it is relinquished to public interpretation, never to be fully pulled back. Domig’s figures are, indeed, autonomous, as the exhibition’s flyer describes. But they slip in and out of materiality, as if to nod back to their creator, in deference. Domig confesses, here, that he continues to struggle with the autonomy/dependence question, and so his work is shot through with spiritual references and insinuations that never quite reach a full resolution. And that’s to our benefit, as the best work emerges from that tension.


The show runs until October 12.

From the website:

Jane Kim/ Thrust Projects is pleased to announce the second solo exhibition of Daniel Domig, entitled With all the Things We Build and Make, a new installation encompassing large and small paintings in a circular, free-standing wooden structure. By making the painting process a form of construction, Domig continues his research into the materiality of objects. The substance for the paintings as well as the installation is the interaction between space and figure in which boundaries both embrace and separate. The emphasis between form and content becomes less about one definitive meaning as the works serve as a fill-in and fenestration to the unoccupied space in the structure, allowing the viewer to peer into Domig’s artistic self and world views from the inside. The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

Daniel Domig (b. 1983) is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His 2006 debut solo exhibition Don’t ask for a name now, maybe you’ll find it later at Thrust Projects was reviewed in Artforum.com (Critic’s Pick, Oct 9, 2006). Recent exhibitions include his first one-person museum show, Daniel Domig: Neither Fear nor Courage Saves us, Museum Engen, Germany, accompanied by a catalogue (edited Städtisches Museum Engen + Galerie, 2008) and Daniel Domig: BEASTBODYBREATHING, Galerie Karol Winiarczyk, Vienna. He lives and works in Vienna.


1 From the essay “Transfigurations,” in the catalog Daniel Domig: Neither Fear Nor Courage Saves Us (Engen, Germany: Städtisches Museum Engen, 2008).