In DJ Augustine, the largest painting in Angela Dufresne’s current show Parlors and Pastorals, one could say that the story goes something like this: DJ Augustine in the foreground is spinning records, his dog watches eagerly to the left, books are scattered on the floor, and a sculpture of Zeus or Poseidon, launching a trident or a thunderbolt in one hand and masturbating with the other, stands in the distance beneath an arched doorway. Another narration, more dreamy, might emphasize the medium itself: a scumbled field of deep purplish blue has been scratched into, drawn over, wiped, and dragged, creating layers of marks and the illusion of receding space. Slivers of pale peach yellow, cerulean, and earthy red penetrate and hover. The white of the canvas peeks through here and there. All of these formal decisions come together to construct what is an expansive interior, a bit like a sparsely furnished laboratory. So much is going on, not the least of which is the aide of art historical familiarity. It is an allusion that challenges the viewer’s knowledge of this history. Which artist(s) is DJ Dufresne riffing from as she mixes all of these elements together, into a kind of composite self-portrait?
“It is more difficult to retell stories than to make new ones up,” Dufresne explains in a conversation with fellow painter Nicola Tyson. “One has to inhabit things that exist already and lose oneself, be fully present in the role, but also always let the audience know what’s happening, that there’s a role being played.”
The stories in Parlors and Pastorals seem to have been told before. Flipping through a hefty Janson’s History of Art textbook, I glimpse landscapes and interiors by Titian, Rubens, Courbet, Friedrich, and Delacroix. These were artists who also sampled the age-old myths of Greece and Rome, Christian legends, and historical events, both contemporaneous and distant. The Western tradition, according to this canon of painters, is male and white. I think back to my art history classes, nodding with each successive movement, as though I were listening to a rote litany. Yes, this story, Renaissance, yes, and Enlightenment, and Neo-Classicism and Romanticism and the Impressionists, and so on.
Is Dufresne putting this oft-repeated tale into question when she paints idyllic scenes expressionistically, betraying the simplified and peaceful life that a pastoral or a parlor might connote?
At Monya Rowe and CRG galleries, where Dufresne’s seventeen new paintings are being shown, there are echoes of a bucolic, romanticized past, except they seem not at all peaceful. They’re unsteady, the form always impinging on the content. They collide with other spaces, as in the cold, gray-blue painting of a movie theater where the feature film is John Singleton Copley’s 1778 painting Watson and the Shark. The screen is depicted like a giant iPad and the spectators are transfixed shadows. Buster Keaton, with his back turned to us, recalls Friedrich’s Rückenfigur—a figure seen from behind, gazing at the sublime sea or mountain range. Except here, the silent film star, standing conductor-like, confronts a blockbuster painting.
Among the artists that have influenced her, a list that includes the many painters she “covers,” Dufresne cites Cindy Sherman, whose critical, performative photographs of gender and history reveal how academic paradigms are far from fixed. In particular, Sherman’s History Portraits, in which she shape-shifts into the subjects of famous paintings, draw our attention to how bodies are represented and seen.
Dufresne does something similar in her paintings. Instead of donning wigs and prosthetics, however, she seems to ask first “What would an Albert Bierstadt landscape look like painted with the energy of a de Kooning?” And her imagination keeps running: What would it look like if protesters occupied these well-known pictorial spaces, pitching tents and playing music? What if the sun in that painting looked like a fried egg? The viewer keys into this humorous role-play through the titles, which suggest her process of montaging images culled from cinema, history, popular culture, and current events.
Angela Dufresne, DJ Augustine; Courtesy of the artist & Monya Rowe Gallery.
Whether laptop-sized or "epic" in scale, Dufresne’s paintings have the ability to overwhelm. In between all the layering of references and paint, she demands a point of entry from the viewer. One has little choice but to jump right in. Once there, the most significant aspect of her work is challenging our prejudices of painting and considering our relationships to laden, time-worn images. How do you look, then? Well, with paintings like DJ Augustine or Lady David-Rosemary Angeles in a Golden Swamp, Dufresne seems to want us to start with our bodies. These are very physical paintings, and they make us mindful of our own physicality, shocking the system into a sensuous awareness of history. In an inclusive way, like any good disc jockey would do, she makes you dance to her big beats. In turn, you feel like a participant, an insider with more moves than you thought capable.
(Image on top: Angela Dufresne, Hanna Schygulla Again Because There Can't Be Too Much of Her, 2012, oil on canvas, 10 x 12 inches; Courtesy of the artist & Monya Rowe Gallery.)