Monday, November 12, 2012

Dennison W. Griffith: "The Power of the Mark"

Dennison W. Griffith, Soliloquy, #31, 2012.
Encaustic on panel, 50 x 39.5."
Dare I stand right up and say it out loud? Dennison W. Griffith's work in his current show, The Power of the Mark, is full of sweetness and light. It is lovely to look at, delightful to know. The palettes of his paintings are the confectioner's window on a rainy day. His wiry, droopy drawings suggest that if nature be held together only by our confidence, still, it seems to work, doesn't it? The assurance and joy in his work balance the mysteries that put us on edge. There's no lack of tension in Griffith's work, but I never leave it without feeling somehow reassured. What could be wrong in a world like this?

The Power of the Mark, is showing at  Hammond Harkins, Griffith's gallery in Bexley, Ohio, until November 25. The show includes not only the paintings and drawings that I discuss, but also a show of photographs with its own title, Museum Studies, and an installation constructed of snow fence situated around the entrance to Capital University, across the street from the gallery. This is a very impressive body of work for any artist to have produced during 2011 and 2012, perhaps the more so for Griffith, who is also the very visible, deeply engaged president of Columbus College of Art and Design. Making art is the last thing the president of any institution would be expected to do. 

Dennison W. Griffith, Soliloquy #35, 2012.
Encaustic on panel, 60 x 48."
Griffith's paintings and drawings fill two gallery rooms to such fine effect that I found myself having to make an effort to ponder any work as an individual. For one thing, the paintings all explore the same ground—or air? or micron of cellular matter? or sprinkle of licorice pastilles falling from the candy bag? The elliptical form has fascinated this painter for a long time: His last show at Hammond Harkins featured paintings with similar forms drifting through the picture plane; but those figures and planes were both busier and less substantial. There is a reflective, unhurried, intentional air about the suspension and drift of these forms through their mysterious medium. We wonder not only what they are and where they are going—for it's impossible that they are not moving—but how and why we are given this window onto them. Are these views of an infinite phenomenon? Of a unique event? Of the single brilliant moment in an eternity of viscous dullness? 

The backgrounds, though, which at first glance appear murky, are composed of the colors of ellipses; they are dense mists of largely unseparated colors. This puts the the bold colors of the lozenges into meaningful relationship with their environments, creating not only the visual warmth, but a warming sense for the direction of their possible interpretations.

Dennison W. Griffith, Untitled #8, 2012.
Acrylic and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 34," framed.
Griffith's interest in drawing is never far away in his painting. He always incorporates the gestural—or, it seems, he has to work against his impulse to let the ebullient mark carry him too far. In both the paintings above, the rings generated by repeated gestures add to the pleasure of the paintings, increasing the ambiguity and intrigue of the images, giving us more evidence for our questions about the substantiality of this created world.

So it's wonderful that Griffith's new series of spontaneous, untitled drawings is hung interspersed with the paintings in this show. I enjoy this style of mark-making, in which the artist works intuitively and allows himself to take what comes. This is not work in which one puts down marks, studies, erases, and goes at it again. The artist "just does it" without erasure or major modification. He takes the risk, and it works or doesn't. Often, it doesn't, so it requires honesty of eye and judgment, and brave confidence to work this way. (It also requires a willingness to dedicate a lot of expensive paper to drawings that won't see the light of day.)

The drawings feel simple and very light, yet the forms have gravity, sometimes more than those in the paintings. In Untitled #8, the contrast between the the very light colors of the paint, applied to the widely spaced loops he forms with it, contrasts effectively with the graphite. Usually reading as gray, here graphite feels black by contrast. As Griffith deploys it in the smudged drops and pools it reads as molten lead. Floating loops of light; heavy lumps of lead (almost literally), with horizons or guy-wires of floss and cable.

Dennison W. Griffith, Untitled, #10, 2012. Acrylic and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 34," framed.
Untitled #10 combines many of Griffith's characteristic ideas on one sheet of paper. The vernal colors neither fight with nor absorb the graphite "stones," but coexist with them gracefully: Their energy fields are self-contained; they don't repel one another. The bold, graphite marks in the center appears to have three-dimensional presence, due to the oblique ring that serves as a sort of shadow, and the incomplete oval they overlap, effectively creating a background. Thus he allows the illusion of three dimensional space, continued by the yellow marks that move out on  oval "shadow's" plane. 

But the yellow falls behind the descending column of shapes overpainted with white. These, and the extended form at the top right, again suggest the floating events from indefinite space, like we've seen in his paintings. Yet the easy, spontaneous, expressive quality of the marks here are particularly charming. We can see the sorts of ideas that are on the artist's mind, but we see him letting them take him away on a flight of fancy: We don't see him exercising his control over the picture, tightening everything up, reigning things in. 

Viewing this sheet, we can well imagine the delight that Griffith experienced, holding his brush very lightly and then pushing very hard on his graphite stick to make these marks. Our pleasure is in riding the soft currents of his experience—the lovely marks—to wherever they can take us in space, idea, mood, or season.

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