Dana Gordon’s Implicating Brush

by Sally Eckhoff

(An essay for the exhibition DANA GORDON, SIGNS OF LIFE, 28 PAINTINGS FROM 2023, at the Westbeth Gallery, NY, NY, Feb 3-24, 2024. Copies of the essay are available at the gallery.)

I asked Dana Gordon whether there's a specific moment when a painting comes together. "Of course there is," he told me. "It's now." It was a painter's answer to a painter's question, and I thought he had it exactly right in the same way you'd try to have it exactly right if you were opening a safe. We were talking in Dana's studio, and we cast ourselves backward into earlier waves of painting in New York, at the time when Dana entered the scene.

There was a lot going on. U-turns, dead ends, spillage that stained the conversation for decades, movements that went nowhere. "Shaped canvases," Dana reminded me, "and a rectangle is a shape." We talked about the depersonalization of image, of the anti-autobiographical sway in critical writing, and of the insistence that abstraction has no personal component and no particular soul. "But of course it always does," said Dana, and of course he would say that, because his paintings radiate the existence of the human in the way they touch the air.

There's a connection, I think, between Dana and a moment in James Lord's book A Giacometti Portrait. Lord was sitting for Giacometti, and that's an especially baffling and frustrating position to be in. Over and over, Alberto would build up one of his cagelike assemblages of tapered, oily streaks, and the face would begin to emerge. Then he'd grab a rag and wipe the whole thing away and start again. Lord is sitting there praying that Alberto would quit screwing around and produce the painting. And then the painter would lean around the edge of the canvas and squint at his model, and he said, "I'm going to make a hole in nature." That's when you know the ride isn't over.

There are two words for Dana's paintings. One is simultaneous. The other is holding. You can't tell when and where each work begins. A mark and another mark and another one are peeking at each other across the picture plane; they know exactly where the other is and what it's doing, but they're not touching. They're like the sparrows in murmurations. The morphic field is strong in these paintings. Your sixth sense can feel it. That's the powerful gesture of holding.

Take the measure of this artwork. Draw close to it. That's where you'll see the physical drag of the paint where the brush leaves it. If you read them in some kind of order you might recognize a twisty jet of air that keeps the marks apart and blows from painting to painting, sometimes collapsing into itself (because of the pressure the color is putting on it) before it escapes into another painting, and another, and another. Coalescence lays it all out for you; it's proposing ideas for you to consider. And when you go immediately to Secret Code, you might realize you're getting stuck in a few places while feeling like you're at the beach. Then when you're getting good and serious, Painting X pulls off a little bit of mischief, like it's goofing at you. Actually, it's a very delicate and loving disquisition on motivation and travel, but if you're really locked into the surfaces and motion by now, you might experience it as funny (I did). Then Signs of Life; so pretty, like a caress.

I'm particularly attracted to the black and white works, which set up color blinks where there is no color, but most especially because I can see a musical shift in articulation, portato to staccato, when I go from Manichean to Mirage. And I go on like that. Register: buildings and houses. Generation: a lost street. Not because abstraction must yield cogent images for the viewer, but because it organizes itself somehow around experience. Apply your own. Try to see it as rhythm.

If you approach this work like music, you won't be far wrong. Like Dana, I am a strong proponent of the guitar-driven music of 1930's Paris. Django Reinhardt is our pole star. The quality of this music is also simultaneity and a sense of popping up. Gypsy jazz guitar music is organic and unamplified. There are no drums. It's complex, yet somehow unmysterious. The notes ripple like cats climbing up and down ladders (cats do that) and are assertive and distinct, like footsteps. There's little or no legato, nothing blurry or distorted. This fits in with the natural edges in Dana's surfaces and marks, formed by the nature of the brush. The wooden guitar can only sound like itself. So Time Being can fit into a musical context, time being the essence of rhythm—and gypsy jazz rhythm guitar is one of the most persuasive sounds the human ear can hear. Coming back around, the organic essence of gypsy jazz couldn't be clearer than in Arpeggio, because the arpeggio, the cat on the ladder, is the foundation of a gypsy guitar solo. Advanced Theoretical Physics is less Django Reinhardt than Archie Shepp, with its criss-crossing marks generating more energy and bouncing it back. For me, Knossos is the apotheosis of the whole thing. The same technique with just a few adjustments brings you to a Bronze Age Cretan palace. And though the painting is anything but simple, the sensation it imparts of standing on rock is invigorating. It slows you down. After that, Late Music is perfection.

Nothing gets out of hand here. The artist's control—and there is a lot of it—shows itself purely in the edges and the bewitching, shifting surface of the white underneath.

Sally Eckhoff is a painter, writer, animator, equestrian, and Djangologist whose hundreds of writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Salon.com, Artforum, Details, the Utne Reader, Orion, the Bennington Review, and other national and international publications.