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Review: Jan Dickey’s Simultaneous Burial and Excavation of the Law in Painting

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

By Chunbum Park, 2023-04-18


"Half-reaction" (10 x 8 inches, 2023), "Crimson Citron" (18 x 15 inches, 2023), and "Lemon Crimson" (18 x 15 inches, 2023) on exhibit at the D.D.D.D. gallery


Jan Dickey’s solo exhibition titled, “Passing Through,” at the artist-run D.D.D.D. gallery in NYC features spectacular and highly experimental paintings with which Dickey simultaneously buries and excavates both meaning and visual splendor.

The Germany-born American painter states that he is interested in pursuing a collective discovery of the symbols and shapes that define and transform us eternally because of their special nature and despite their ephemeral and ever-changing quality. In his self-written exhibition statement Dickey uses a metaphor for the special symbols that contain shared meaning about ourselves as being inscribed onto a river of mud that is flowing from the top of a mountain. This visual metaphor provides the basis of our understanding of his paintings. What is the nature of these shapes? Are they meant to forever evolve and engage in an everlasting dialogue with us, those who created the symbols, to express the sum of our own collective and individual identity? Or, are they meant to disappear as vestiges behind the curtains of cosmic gas formations and layers of paint?


The obverse view of "Lemon Crimson" by Jan Dickey


The paintings which vary in size from the small pieces such as “Half-reaction” (8 x 10 inches) to the larger works such as “Blood Lapis” (32 x 54 inches) resemble in part a screensaver of a Windows 98 PC that is translated and imposed onto a coarsely built up surface via analog means. The screensaver features the movement or array of the stars, often stylized into diagonal slants as if to suggest their movement at an angled plane relative to the viewer. Although the works are painted, glazed, layered, sanded, rubbed, incised into, and applied with other techniques that are secrets of the artist, they resemble experimental photography or printmaking with light-sensitive and corrosive chemicals. Parts of the paintings contain surfaces akin to rocks or geological structures, while other areas appear like a closeup of a digital photo in the JPEG format with the slightly discolored artifacts (or the bundling of pixels) that form in the compressed digital image format. Veins which become valleys and roads under a magnifying glass often result in these works due to the sanding or incising of the more thickly built up lines of paint upon their drying. Often, large, strong geometric lines or planes of color define the overall composition. These lines and planes become an anchoring base of stability and order, and provide necessary contrast to the chaos and changes in the subsequent layers of the painting.


The obverse side of "Crimson Citron," and the front side of "Lemon Crimson" (18 x 15 inches, 2023) turned towards the viewer


I observe that Dickey is a painter’s painter as he is very much concerned with how the painting is conceived, as much as how the pieces are painted or layered. In this exhibition, Dickey appears to be thinking about the philosophy of painting, in which he asks if a painting is a window or a door. Dickey must have concluded that the painting is a door, as he installs hinges onto the paintings that allow the viewer to rotate the work from one side and examine its back side.

The obverse of the paintings are equally as fascinating as the front surfaces, as they have groovy marks resulting from the immense tensions on the canvas due to the heavy layering and manipulation of paint on the other side. These shapes and patterns on the obverse side tell clues of how painting was conceived, constructed, and worked on. They may appear to be “accidental” outcomes of a process-based approach, but I also believe that they were meant to be exactly the way they turned out.

The symbols of Dickey’s focus are the five-pointed stars originally featured in the American flag, symbols that carry a great deal of meaning in terms of history, ideology, and pseudoscientific and/or spiritual beliefs. Carl Sagan used to often say that we all come from the stars because our bodies are made of stardust. Stars (mainly the Sun) provide the energy as light to the Earth’s biosphere, which absorbs the light via photosynthesis in plants. Stars are also related to the Greek zodiac, which is based on the constellations, and astrology, which predicts a person’s personality and compatibility in relationships. Stars may also represent not only individuals but also nation states and other political entities. Many countries including the US, China, and the Soviet Union in the past, featured stars in their flags. NATO also features a star with appendages that point to the four main directions like a compass.


"Redox" by Jan Dickey (12 x 9 inches, 2023)


As Dickey says, his intention with the symbolism of the stars is not to express patriotic emotions. After all, the United States is a land of democracy promising equality and justice, and it is also a land stolen from the Native Americans and worked on by the labor of African American slaves and Chinese immigrants. There are many great accomplishments as well as questionable decisions and outright crimes that were committed by the people and the government of the US. To say the least, any serious and truthful understanding of America would be a complicated and contradictory endeavor that resolves together the country’s idealism and violence, equality and slavery, its beauty and its capitalist exploitation. A true patriotic American, or a sensible and literate citizen, would not be brainwashed by American propaganda claiming the US is the greatest country. Rather, s/he or they would merely believe in the promise of a more perfect union than has been achieved fully neither in the past nor in the present, but could be realized somewhere in the distant future.

Dickey’s stars are uniquely American; they do not feel Communist and hostile, but rather democratic and idealistic. Their forms, which glisten and radiate with off and neutral colors, convey the spirit of the original founders, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, that a democracy is a messy yet beautiful experiment, which could gradually evolve its governance for the good of all people.

This contrasts with the current understanding of US exceptionalism by conservative American extremists, which goes something like this: “America is great because it is run by white people, who are the superior master race. We only welcome immigrants from Europe, and not any other parts of the world. There are too many dark-skinned immigrants coming to America.” (At the same time, they vehemently deny that they are racists because the label of being racist would be akin to a political and social suicide or annihilation.) The idealistic spirit and the exceptionalism of the country that the original founders inscribed into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are severely lacking today among the conservative extremists.


"Signal Sage Forget-me-not" (36 x 31 inches, 2023) and "Blood Lapis" (54 x 32 inches, 2023) rotated


So what do the stars say about us? What do the stars summarize? They amount to something. I propose that the stars are the conceptual, the abstract, and the symbolic. They represent laws that are not visible in physical reality. However, the coarsely layered and built up surface of these paintings with their chaotic patterns and organic shapes indicate a physical reality that includes nature. Out of this confusing, everchanging, and impermanent physical reality, in which everything washes away in the muddy slide, we find something symbolic that is concrete yet intangible. How interesting and contradictory! This concrete thing is not the drawing in the mud itself. This concrete thing is the idea behind the drawing in the mud. The mud will only continually deform and eventually disappear, but the concrete thing is language and the law, which are intangible and symbolic inventions. The idea conveyed through language, which also provides the architecture for the law, is like a constellation of stars. A constellation is an intangible and abstract image or object that exists only in the human imagination, but it is like anything else that is real and true to people, including the external world. The constellation and the star are therefore very important symbols for Dickey, who finds a firm structure in the abstract.

The law rules this land, and everyone is equal before the law. No one is above the law. The law imparts upon the citizens of this country an altered and transformed reality that provides order and basis for fairness in commerce and industries, as well as the possibility for a dynamic modern life. This law is like any other law, including the laws of physics which dictate the movement and collision of every particle in the cosmos. This, in essence, is the discovery described in Dickey’s metaphor.

In conclusion, I realize by examining Dickey’s exhibition statement and his paintings that we humans create the law that is based in language and abstract ideas, and this law promises to flip the dark nature of human history with the ideals of human peace and progress. After all, until law was invented, humans inhabited literal jungles, where only the fittest survived. The weak, the sick, the elderly, and women and children were mistreated by the strong. For example, we know that other kinds of people and different hominid species all became extinct, and the only kind of humanoid people left on Earth are us: the Homo Sapiens. Before the invention of the law, such as Code of Hammurabi, entire tribes of people were exterminated as a result of continual escalation of violence, which spawned revenge upon revenge. The law takes off the burden of revenge from the people by allowing for a fair trial in court.


"Blood Lapis" (54 x 32 inches, 2023) and "Charcoal Cherry Salvia" (33.5 x 29 inches, 2023) by Jan Dickey


Before America began her experimentation with democracy, various nation states, kingdoms, and empires warred each other in a brutal fashion without any regard for human rights, and kings and emperors passed on the right to rule only to their descendants, regardless of whether they were fit to be leaders. Kings everywhere used God or gods to justify their one-person rule (such as the concept of the Mandate of Heaven in imperial China), and inequality and oppression were a natural part of human existence, just like the climate or the geography. It was George Washington who shocked the world by stepping down from the office upon ending his term as America’s first President. Washington’s moral precedent defined what was allowed and forbidden, not might or self-interest. After World War II, it was America’s vision for a new international order based on law and not might that helped usher in a new era of prosperity and international cooperation, with the birth of various bodies including the UN. The merits of these events should be acknowledged despite the war crimes committed in acts like the US invading Iraq in 2003.

What is justice? Justice is not to prevail over your enemies for the sake of self interest or the national interest. Justice is to treat your enemies equally before the law and to acknowledge the merits of their point of view or story even if they oppose your own goals and interests. A true lawyer should be able to say, “Hey, I agree with the other side. My defendant was wrong to commit this crime.” Prior to the law, people only fought for their self interests, and only the strong survived. After the effects of the law took place, people could acknowledge each other’s points of view and to pursue an equal outcome in disputes that is fair to all parties per the evidence presented.

This is a complete contrast to the law of the jungle, where only the strongest and the meanest survive. There is no opportunity for sensitive souls to exist, who may have an introspective and nuanced, thoughtful take on life. Without the human law, there cannot be true artists who are free thinkers engaged in authentic dialect. Art in its modern and/or contemporary form is a modern invention because the modern law, which defends equality, justice, and the individual freedoms, permits the free exchange of ideas and free expression.


"Singal Sage Forget-me-not" (36 x 31 inches, 2023) by Jan Dickey


From my perspective, the law is the source of Dickey’s idealistic optimism and hopefulness. We can sense it most in his works in which a sense of harmony and order prevail despite the abundant chaos and discordance. The law may prove to be humanity’s greatest invention, and democracy may prove to be America’s greatest experiment, greater than any scientific project. America as a republic pioneered a particular legal tradition based in profound and idealistic interpretation that reflects humanism and democratic ideals rooted in the preceding democratic experiments of ancient Greece and Rome. Although the ancient Greeks and Romans practiced slavery and oppressed women and the poor, I feel a need to acknowledge their importance as the birthplace of the democratic tradition within the arc of American history.

With this thought, I leave the mental image of the exhibition stored in my memory, again seeing myself shaking Dickey and gallery director Damien Ding’s hands. Earlier today, I left the exhibition with a sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity about Dickey’s works. I leave the exhibition now a second time, in my mind, with a sense of optimism and hopefulness for America – regarding its history and trajectory.


"Half-reaction" (10 x 8 inches, 2023) and "Crimson Citron" (18 x 15 inches, 2023) by Jan Dickey



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