Dexter Dalwood has been nominated for his solo exhibition at Tate St Ives, which revealed the rich depth and range to his approach to making painting that draws upon historical tradition as well as contemporary cultural and political events.
Dalwood’s work explores the way history is made up of different perspectives and experiences. His paintings are often collages (either physically combining different elements, or painted to look like they do). He emphasises this by using a variety of styles in each painting (for example, the Cubist section in Herman Melville (2005) , or the abstract circles against the pleasant backdrop in Greenham Common, 2008). These different styles of painting have evolved in order to emphasise different aspects of a scene or an idea, and by stitching them together Dalwood is able to highlight the piecemeal nature of his work and, in turn, how we view the world.
In all of the works on display at Tate Britain, the person mentioned in the painting’s title is absent. But I think this forces you to consider the scene and how it relates to the person who is missing. Why did Dalwood choose these images and props to represent the figure named in the title? And how would they fit in if they were there? This is particularly striking in two of the more tragic scenes in Dalwood’s Turner Prize selection – Lennie (2008) and Death of David Kelly (2009) .
Lennie refers to one of the main characters from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (which I remember reading at school). Lennie accidentally kills a woman, and is chased by an angry mob. His devoted friend George is then forced to shoot him to prevent him being linched by the crowd. But George, Lennie and the crowd are missing from the painting. All that is left is a bleak landscape, which appears to be torn strips of other paintings of other places, and a huge swathe of green. The green river running through the painting is pleasant and a bit unsettling at the same time. Otherwise, the picture is fairly calm and pleasant, which is at odds with the violence and fear that the characters would be experiencing if they were pictured.
Similarly, Death of David Kelly contains no visual references to the event it depicts – the suicide of UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly following the controversy surrounding claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But once you read the title, the painting becomes very poigniant. The dark blue background and the single tree make the painting feel lonely and isolated, echoing the loneliness and isolation of David Kelly’s final days and, ultimately, of the way he died.
I think my favourite painting in the exhibition was Greenham Common. The background of the painting is a pleasant English landscape, with a bright blue sky and rolling green hills. But the centre of the picture is overwhelmed with black and orange roundels escaping from an enclosure of fences and barbed wire. The black and orange combination seems unnatural and unsettling, capturing something of the angst surrounding nuclear weapons on British soil. It feels like there’s been an explosion, and the discs easily spill out of their secure enclosure and devastate the scene. In the left corner, an arm pokes out from underneath – someone has been caught in the blast. But this isn’t a just about the danger of nuclear weapons – I think it taps into the amiguous uneasiness that goes with danger which is invisible and unquantifiable. And I wonder if it also connects with the ongoing fear of terror that seems to be ever-present?
The combined result of the works in the exhibition is a nagging feeling of uncertainty. Can we really trust our own perceptions? Is the best we can hope for as we recall the past just a patchwork collection of recollections and perspectives? Is anything true? And how does this affect the way we view the present and the future? As a Christian it’s a relief, in the face of this kind of uncertainty and despairing questioning, to know the Author of History – of the recalled past, but also of the happening present and the unfolding future. And I think Dalwood’s questioning of how we think about events prods at a longing for this kind of solid foundation.
You can watch a 3 minute film about Dexter Dalwood’s Turner Prize 2010 Exhibition on 4OD.