Painting the Julian Calendar

Verne Dawson explores man’s place in an unstoppable universe

Verne Dawson’s notion of a “body of work” is expansive and eclectic. His fifth exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, “The Days of the Week and Other Paintings,” contains 15 paintings that could be broken out into smaller, disparate shows—each seemingly by a different artist. There’s the main event, “The Days of the Week,” a grouping of circus and crowd scenes and a quivering, lone monochrome painting entitled “Near Death.”

Dawson manages to make extremely familiar cultural signifiers seem strange, new and magical. In “Calendar,” a circle of playing cards wraps around the outer edge of a large tondo, or circular painting. Combined with the quaintly handwritten names of the month that radiate from the center of the painting, the faces and numbers printed on the cards suggest the hidden intersections of skill and fate revealed on a gentleman’s gaming table or in a carny’s booth. This wheel of fortune predates Vanna White by a century or two.

Nearby, each day of the week merits a small, loosely abstracted picture evocative of the planets, colors and Mother Goose verse associated with its name. “Sunday” is a roiling mass licked by yellow and red brushstrokes; “Monday,” a delicate swoon of opalescent grays hanging mid-frame; and “Wednesday” is a jewel-encrusted ball, stolid and glittery as the mace carried by Mars, the Roman god of war. A pear-shaped maiden emerging from a brushy “shell” reminds us that Friday is Venus’ day. And “Saturday” has mod racing stripes, converting the rings of Saturn into an orange hot rod of a painting.

The paintings that make up “The Days of the Week” are Modernist in terms of their abstract approach, but the rough daubs that inscribe flying aerialists into a dazzling blue sky harkens back to Corot and Puvis de Chavannes. The light feels hot and clarifying, as if emanating from an Italian fresco. Small incidents of black drawing activate the surfaces and the geometries of composition are embedded in the narrative.

The installation of the paintings places similarly “themed” works next to each other and highlights the congruity of story rather than of reference. Because one of Dawson’s subjects seems to be a kind of joyful romp through Western sources—18th and 19th century allegorical and landscape painting, Greco-Roman mythologies, occult iconography and pre-modern science and astronomy—this arrangement negates the conceptual conceit of a body of work that is “style-free.” Each individual work is strung to the next by its own particular relationship to paintings of the past.

Dawson reminds us over and over of the peculiar and highly personal enterprise entailed by painting a picture. His kind of painting is so timely, as well as timeless, one can’t imagine it getting old.

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