ICON and the Regional Arts Revolutions | The Little ICON That Could

John Dilg’s Storyboard, 2006, now on exhibit at ICON Gallery through July 19, 2008.

Paintings are portraits commissioned by an urge felt by all of us, one that goes largely undetected for most of us, but long enough and often enough for an artist to want to paint it.

Job One of the serious painter: paint those undetected urges. And while you’re at it, familiarize us with the unfamiliar lurking within the all too familiar. Job Two: Make sense out of all of this; that is, make the unfamiliar, undetectable urges detectable and eerily familiar, through the paint itself. And while you’re still at it, no “ideas,” please. No more “Attack of the Head People.” Make sensuous, sensorial, sensational sense.

Can this happen? Yes, it’s what a painter does, or used to do, before the Head People showed up. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps that is why it is so rare.

Where to find this “most natural thing in the world”? Consider ICON Gallery, that ambitious marvel of a space over at 58 North Main in Fairfield. On the square, and square in the heart of the Regional Art Revolution. What is this rabid talk of revolution? Apparently, the Monolithic Art Structure is in precipitous free fall, and smallish but serious upstart galleries are starting up where they simply should not be. Exciting, yes, but that’s another subject for another day.

The good stuff, meanwhile. Over at ICON. Right now. Until July 19, in fact. A regional show of area artists, with lots to choose from. Good variety. One example: John Dilg (University of Iowa faculty). He has it going. Small- to moderate-scale oil paintings. Not abstraction. Not realism. In-betweeners. And they work why?

Finesse helps. And not just the masterful working of that surface—feathered, burnished—but also the finesse of the viewer viewing views. That switcheroo of perception that allows for the co-joined moment, a “caught-looking” moment. And that moment is the painting. It’s that mitosis of persuasion that lifts marks and gestures into the secret cryptogrammic hi-sign: “Here, for now, at least, we are together on this. We get it.” What do we get? That good painting consists of a sudden gush of the uncanny, yet it may come only after patient watching. And waiting. An extended dip in the unthink tank.

Of this, little need be said. Since the painting is doing all the talking. Must do all the talking. Humming its way to an eventual bumblebee in the bonnet. Which is my kind of painting, since it can both bug and beguile me into fits, then flights of provocation.

These are generous, open paint offerings. They seem to infer a need to rescue, possibly even redeem, mass culture signage not only from its ubiquity, but also from its pesky Zombiehood of the mind. Indeed, signage not only carries fixed, numbingly narrow, pre-assigned meanings, but does so unrelentingly, throughout the live-long day, deep into the night, present even when we are not. Highway signs, advertisement, warning signs. Encroaching, thusly, and subsuming, eventually, the very landscape—nature herself—into a flattened pictogram. What Dilg seems to provide is a kind of semi-amphibious straddle-craft that slowly trolls and sifts its way to emptified, prankstery Sign Vengeance, exploring realms of signistic delight and painterly mischief. We have seen this type of thing where? Dreams, surely. Also, historically with fellow semiotic submersibles, the likes of whom might include painters Paul Klee, Stuart Davis, Sol Lewitt, Myron Stout, Enrique Chagoya, Saul Steinberg,  Ed Ruscha, and others. Do we not also feel the lengthy, ancient shadows cast by Egyptian hieroglyphs, Native American petroglyphs, and Assyrian cuneiform?

Yet it is Dilg’s intimacy, elegance, and humor that make for an original iconography and somehow discourage crusty notions of painting, granting us a much-needed permission slip to gleefully tire of  the Velvet-Rope school of “serious” art without banishing us to the other “serious” warrens of the contemporary scene—in-your-face scatology or brainiacal think-athons.

To the extent that mass culture gulps us down whole, and mass culture signage is collective uber-language, Dilg delivers portraits of you and me standing before the painting itself, watching for signs, unwittingly beseeching, “John, snap me out of it, by coaxing me into it.”     

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