“Builder on the Edge of a Chaotic World”

by Lucy R. Lippard


Peter Dean has been both the victim and the beneficiary of the artworld's perennial mood swings between classical and romantic, pure and impure, minimal and expressionist, clean and dirty. A dyedinthewool independent he has always come down on the shadier side. His subject matter is often rampantly political or revelationally personal. His technique is selftaught (although he was a sophisticated teacher) and deeply felt rather than deeply refined. His colors are lurid and demanding. His forms and figures can be as awkward as life as they flail across the heavily painted surfaces in which they are also embedded.

Although he likes to say he was born in "Berlin, Montana," so the Germans can't claim him as an artist, Dean was born in 1934 of Jewish parents in a Berlin, Germany, that was falling prey to the black angel of Nazism (pictured in his painting The Expulsion as a blond woman, half skeletally masked, her robes smeared with red skulls and swastikas). The fouryear period before they fled recurs in his art as it has in his nightmares. Recurring Dream is set against golden arches that I took to be a temple but are in fact the burning windows of a railway station covered with barbed wire. ("Things were happening then. My father was a World War I veteran, and they took care of them...until the last moment.") In The Handwriting on the Door, three Nazi pigs (literally) painting yellow stars on doors have slashed a yellow bar across a young man's chest. Of a related work Berlin: The Accusation, in which a small boy with his mother (and grandfather?) points at a Gestapo officer Dean has written: "...the little boy is telling his mother, 'This is the man my father doesn't like.' His mother is trying to shut him up. Since this is 1937-38, it was extremely dangerous. And I was trying to capture that feeling of tension in this painting even though it is loosely painted."

These childhood paintings of fear are executed with a certain hierarchal awe. They are less wild, more solemn than the "fictional" subjects. Falling Art documents a happier event, though it to communicates certain portentousness. Dean's mother was nursing him as a baby when a German Impressionist landscape painting in a heavy gold frame suddenly fell off the wall, breaking a coffee table, but sparing the infant. "It was an omen," he says. "When I heard the story I figured I had to be an artist."

The family immigrated to New York City in 1938, and Dean was raised in the refugee community in Inwood. His father was a historian and his mother took him to museums and concerts ("but I couldn't tell the guys in the neighborhood where I'd been"). Having painted steadily since childhood, Dean attributes his auto-didacticism and antiauthoritarianism to early artistic traumas from kindergarten on, when crass teachers marked over his work.

In college at Cornell and then at the University of Wisconsin, he audited a lot of art history courses, and painted, but didn't take studio courses. "I did some of my best paintings of very strange things when I was a senior in college, after I saw German Expressionism and the Fauves,'' he recalls. One enthusiastic attempt painted on a window shade was turned down by an exhibition jury.

He became a geologist instead - an attraction to substance still perceptible in his dependence on the prima materia of paint, though this is no more evident in his landscapes than in his allegorical paintings. "The earth talked to me," he says of his days as a mining engineer in Montana, Colorado, Nevada, and Brazil. "Geology" isn't like the other sciences. It can't be, because geological formations break all the rules. They're completely unpredictable. I couldn't stand any other type of science. The only thing as free as doing geology is being an artist."

Dean's first show (ironically, in retrospect) was given him by the USIA in Brazil. In 1959, he returned to New York to work six months on, six months off in soil engineering and made art in the interims. He tried, and failed, to get into a Tenth Street Gallery. Studying painting at night with Andre Girard at City College pushed him over the edge, and in 1969 he committed himself to painting full time.

Artists who impressed him in the '60s were Robert Beauchamp, Lester Johnson, Jan Muller and Robert Thompson.

Dean became visible in New York in the mid '60s when Minimal art seemed to best express the zeitgeist - oddly, since it was a period when even the artworld was swept up in a counter-cultural fervor. In 1965 he was a co-founder of the "Torque" group, which he named after a dream. ("Torque" was defined in the dictionary as a "twisted barbarian belt".) The members included Joseph Kurhajec, Peter Saul, and Leon Golub. They attracted the attention of some critics, among them Lawrence Alloway, and tried to get shows around the country, but nothing panned out: "We were maniacs in the midst of Minimalism." In 1967 Dean showed his "Cannibals" at a storefront gallery on Elizabeth Street. "Cannibal Cocktail Party" focused on LBJ but was also attended by the Kennedys, Westmoreland and other Vietnam era villains, all drooling blood.

In 1969 Dean co-founded another group, the iconoclastic Rhino Horn, which included Peter Pasuntino, Nick Sperakis, Benny Andrews, Leonel Gongora Ken Bowman. , Mike Feuerbach, and sometimes, Jay Milder and Red Grooms. This socially critical expressionist outpost, with its unashamedly phallic intentions (the rhinoceros horn) considered an aphrodisiac, did not succeed in penetrating the Minimal/Conceptual strongholds, but it did raise the temperature of the art against the Vietnam war.

The group lasted amazingly long, despite the occasional intramural punch out, coming apart in 1975, when the war was over and the elusive, pluralist, and cooled-out '70s began in earnest.

In 1977, Dean began painting landscapes in order to document the beauty around his house in Columbia County, upstate New York, before a power line went through and ruined it. He got hooked, and concentrated on powerful, Fauve colored landscapes for two years until the Pope appeared in a rained-on parade outside Dean's home on Spring street, gave him "a little rabbit ears V-sign," and jolted him back into figurative painting.

Toward the end of the decade, Dean came into his own when "new image" painting, the "East Village scene," and then European neo-expressionism were riding the high horses into the '80s and his own exuberant, raucous style became palatable again. It was also at this point that he returned to political subjects after several years of working primarily from his imagination.

Dean is truly an expressionist. He has something to express other than mere style. But he is also what used to be called a "painter's painter." He paints from the gut and has long expressed his dissatisfaction with "the art-as-decoration" scene. "I feel that the artist's hand and heart must be exposed in a work of art. I am involved with both fantasy and reality of my life and times."

These are "history paintings" but they haven't calmed down quite enough to be history yet. The America we live in is reflected in Dean's paintings in all its gory glory. As a responsive and responsible artist, he takes it to heart, combating and transforming what's going on around him, walking a socio-esthetic tightrope between political outrage and the longer, more mystical view.

Although Dean's style is often compared to that of Ensor and the Fauves, sometimes it seems closer to the deadly masquerades of Max Beckmann and particularly to the ferocious innocence and high-spirited frankness of Philip Evergood. (The strained sweetness of the women in particular, recalls Evergood, as does the chaotic, quasi Surrealist use of miniature detail, acrid color, and passionate politics.) Altogether, there is a remarkable consistency of style, emotional level, and content in the 24 years of work covered by this exhibition, from the grotesque War Dance of 1966 to the 1989 Death Squad, with its grim turbaned reaper standing for international violations of human rights. Frontal figures still anchor the difficult, chaotic compositions, confronting the audience with their leers and grimaces, triumphs and pains. (The deliberate disjunctions are fostered by his eccentric painting process sort of jigsaw puzzle system, "I finish one section of the canvas, then the next.")

Dean's subject is very often death, or the threat of death, and violence. Carter Ratcliff has written that his most brutal canvases look like "tough negotiations between Dean the passive consumer and Dean the agent of a restlessly active conscience" (Peter Dean, North Dakota Museum of Art, 1989, p. 14). He is particularly fond of assassinations, or "large murders" (as opposed to the series of ghastly "small murders" inspired by his experiences on a grand jury in 1979 and shown at the Semaphore Gallery in 1980). Escape depicts the almost comic getaway of John Wilkes Booth, who tripped over the flag bunting after shooting Abraham Lincoln, and broke his leg. So Long George is the cavalier title for the death of black militant George Jackson, apparently set up by the FBI while serving time at Folsom. Dallas Chaos depicts the TV spectacular provided the American public by Jack Ruby's shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. The cameras are there, so are the frothing dogs and the whitemasked cop who plays the bewildered (cheated) executioner figure.

Assassination of Malcolm X is curiously static in comparison to the others, recording a moment when time stops. The killer, though black, wears a white mask, and Malcolm's head is enveloped in a translucent globe within which he instantly reincarnates into an African ceremonial dancer, or priest. In Bobby, the bloodstained, white Sirhan, an avenging angel figure, looks back as his victim dies, the swirling stripes of his red tie echoed by the deathly serpent below. Dean has also painted the sudden deaths of Crazy Horse, Che Guevara, and John Lennon. He seems fascinated by those moments when nobility, fanaticism and fate meet and explode.

In Boston Massacre/El Salvador, bloody nationalism transcends time. The wearers of the U.S. flag masks could be 18th century North American revolutionaries or the murderous emissaries of the U.S. armed backed and trained Salvadoran government attacking FMLN revolutionaries and civilians today; or they could be, as Dean has suggested, Sandinistas, who modeled their revolution on the U.S. The skull helicopters and the gun spewing a Pollock-like barrage come from the evil, ghostly, "death squad" side of the painting. In I Want You, a John Wayne figure, his horse wreathed in flowers, accompanied by a white wolf-dog, issues his grim call; it could be to young men, or to nations about to suffer the effects of Manifest Destiny. One of the more provocative and mysterious works in this show is the 1972 Unknown Soldier. It's a mystery to its maker as well, who says he was just "letting my subconscious tell me what to do." The painting is dominated by two "penis chairs," one occupied by a handsome blonde woman, the other by a dead and mutilated body, testicles much in evidence, with high black boots on. They preside over the other two figures - a blinded soldier and a bleeding "Jester," wreathed with flowers and holding a mask and a prisoner's suit with sergeantís chevrons on it. Wars past and present are knit together as memories of World War II inform the Vietnam era.

Finally, two recent paintings, both simultaneously autobiography and social commentary, deal with "religion." In Bohemian Bar Mitzvah, a multicultural group of artists cheers on the boy (Dean's son Gregory) during his rite of passage, as he tucks money into the bra of a veiled belly dancer. Only Dean and his wife Lori look directly at the viewer, as though challenging criticisms of their choice of ritual. Sunday Snake Meetings might be about the terrifying extremes of fundamentalism; the grim preacher at its center has his back to the blue, serpent-bedecked Christ who looks long-suffering in more ways than one. The other communicants are angry, ecstatic, or bewildered as they handle and caress the rattlesnakes that may bite but probably will not kill them. Dean was a witness to this ritual too, at a church in Southwest Virginia when he was working as a geologist.

Given Dean's entire oeuvre, which spans many more subjects than those discussed here, this show (selected by Alternative Museum director Geno Rodriquez) focuses on the evils of today, making connections to the burgeoning American Nazi movement, evangelical backlash, gun power and street violence. It omits the tender side of Dean's work - the not quite lyrical, magical aspect of his profoundly moving portraits of Native Americans, for instance, which culminated in I am the Black God, I Walk in Beauty (1986), an eerie and atypically peaceful portrait of a luminous, partially transparent deity in a paradisiacal landscape reminiscent of the Rockies, which Dean recalls with great fondness from his geology days.

At its best Dean's painting lifts off, riding a peculiar current of extra-painterly energies that have been likened to those of William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh. Thanks to the swirling compositions, masked and costumed figures, and anarchic tempo, his canvases often evoke Carnival. Like actual scenes from celebrations, they could also pass for stills of dreamlike performances. Dean has spent a lot of time in Louisiana ("People there like my work; they think it's all about Mardi Gras"), where Carnival lies throbbing beneath the rest of the "real" year until its pre-Lenten frenzy is released for a week. And he has lived in Brazil, where members of the Samba clubs will spend the whole year and much of their earnings creating their amazingly opulent costumes. Dean's figures play the roles of mocking clowns like those found in Hopi and Pueblo ceremonies. They inhabit that time and place where fantasy is as real as so-called reality, when things are reversed, as in ritual or madness.

Carnival also releases the darker side of the unconscious. In his playful aggression, and sometimes tragic comedy, Dean is less of a "political" artist than the kind of "religious" artist Native Americans would recognize. He is in touch with the subliminal area between clusters of meaning, those scary places where freedom reigns and borders are crossed. He belongs to that gang of divine fools Barbara Myerhoff has cited in her studies of rites of passage - those who are autonomous, independent, and always betwixt and between: "tricksters, clowns, poets, shamans, court jesters, monks, 'dharma bums', holy mendicants" with an emphasis on "innocence, rebirth, vulnerability, fertility, change, emotion, paradox, disorder, anomaly, opposition, and the like." Recommending an "approach which maintains belief alongside critical consciousness," she writes: "Rituals and symbols are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, in the realm of art rather than objective reality" (in Victor Turner, ed., Celebration, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1982, p. 117, 131).

Dean gets the cosmic jokes. He sees himself as a magician, a shaman through whom the images of our times pass into paintings. "I'm an interpreter of reality into fantasy and back again," he has written. "I'm a juggler of texture and color/ I'm a seer of the past and prophet of the future/ I ride the Hurricane/ I walk the tightrope of sanity/ I live on the edge of the world." This is the figure seen in a 1981 self portrait, painted after 80% of fifteen years' work was destroyed in a barn studio fire at his home in Elizaville, N.Y., and he was constructing another studio. In Portrait of a Builder, Dean wields a glowing gold trowel and a sparkling red and silver hammer, ritualistically crossed in front of him so that his face is framed by them as well as by the rising beams above. He is bare chested, rainbow armed, lightly haloed, with a necklace perhaps of bear teeth, and the intense eyes of a visionary. Rebuilding is something one knows how to do, after expulsion.

NB: Quotations from the artist are from a conversation with the author, from Carter Ratcliff's text cited above, and from Peter Dean: Recent Paintings, Galleri Bellman, NY, 1984, text by San Hu