Julian Dashper Photography 1980–1994, ex. cat. (Palmerston North: Manawatu Art Gallery, 1994).
Julian Dashper is not a Photographer, at least not one with a capital P. Nor, for that matter, is he really a Painter, although he is widely known as one. Dashper stands outside the guild system. He is a conceptual artist who draws on whatever mode, medium, or manner is appropriate at the time. Exhibiting an installation one week, he will cut a record the next. By sidestepping medium-as-vocation, he can address media in a way media-based artists cannot. So, his work can be about Photography or Painting with a capital P without actually being it.
Photography is not a distinct part of Dashper’s work. He doesn’t have a single body of photographic work. His photographic works relate as much to his works in other media as they do to one another. They are details of a larger project. However, in bringing some of his photographic works together on this occasion, perhaps a little provocatively, Dashper gives us an opportunity to consider what they might have to say about one another and about Photography as such.
With this show, you will be struck by the variety of things that count as photography for Dashper. For instance, there are low-key landscape studies such as Simone (1987). These are in a documentary style, black-and-white, modest in scale, with little drama in the subject or the composition. Dashper calls them ‘meat-and-potatoes photographs’ and likens them both to the seminal art-photography of the American Walker Evans and to the artless aide-memoire shots tourists make of sites they visit. In marked contrast to these ordinary photographs is a later series of works which extend the notion of photography to include photosetting. Futurity (1992), for instance, offers a pair of Futura Os. Such works get in on a technicality. They involve photographic processes, even though they do not operate as photography, at least as we typically conceive of it.
Despite the inclusiveness of Dashper’s photographic practice, we must also recognise its limits. For instance, Dashper’s photography is always ‘straight’.1 Athough he is not at all concerned with photography’s special effects, he is obsessed by its normal effects, the routine transformations it occasions. His work Untitled (Slides) (1990) presents sheets of identical slides of one of his ‘paintings’ (actually a piece of found printed canvas, carefully stretched). This work stresses photography’s power to multiply the original, rendering it scaleless, textureless, and placeless in the process. It plays on the way slide-documentation circulates in place of the real thing; the fact we will look at a slide and say ‘this is a Dashper stripe painting’ rather than ‘this is a slide of a Dashper stripe painting’. But, when we look at Untitled (Slides), it is hard to overlook the space between the original and its reproductions—that transformation is too apparent. Not only has the painting been changed by being made into slides, the grid format of the slide sheet offers a new visual logic, overwhelming the stripe-content of the painting it frames. In Dashper’s work, we discover that the unmanipulated photograph is always already a manipulation and transformation of its subject.2
Dashper’s photographs are never ‘expressive’.3 Expressionist work is compelling: it tries to sway you, to grant you some emotional experience or release. To do this, it must seem autonomous, redolent, here and now. But Dashper’s work is never compelling like this. It is always clearly dependent for its meaning on things outside itself: art history, art apocrypha, other artists’ work, other works of Dashper’s. Rather than expressive, Dashper’s works demand interpretation: meaning remains contingent, deferred.
Dashper’s ‘photographs’ often involve the juxtaposition of photography with other media. This exhibition includes a number of examples. Cass (1986) and Male Order (1989–90) each come in an edition. Each Cass presents an identical photograph of the railway station at Cass (the one immortalised by Rita Angus in her celebrated painting of 1936) accompanied by a unique drawing based on a detail from the photograph.4 In the Male Order series, it is the other way around—photography follows and reproduces drawing. Each work consists of a photograph of eight abstract pencil drawings and one of the original drawings. In both cases, photography and drawing are provocatively juxtaposed to offer us an opportunity to consider the distinct qualities of the mediums and the translation from one to the other.
In Untitled (Italian Zip) (1993–4) and Untitled (The Scream) (1991–3), photographs are combined with found objects: Dashper’s passport photograph peeks out from behind a lengthy zip and a series of condensed italicized Os is accompanied by a homemade wooden potty seat. Both works draw on a superficial visual similarity to expressionist paintings: Untitled (Italian Zip) refers to Barnett Newman’s zip paintings, while the aperture in the toilet and the elongated Os in Untitled (The Scream) recall the Munch painting. However neither work follows the logic or style of its precedent. Dashper’s zip is everyday rather than sublime. Instead of being backed by the awesome otherness of God, it is the artist’s diminutive self which coyly peeks out from behind. And, his Scream is not figurative, garish, and demented, but abstract, graphic, colourless, and cool. These works move in the opposite direction from those they might be thought to pay homage to, following instead the logic of conceptual art or readymades. Here, photography has been used alongside found objects to present further givens, more readymade content.
Included in this exhibition are a number of photographs taken by others. There is Peter Hannken’s notorious portrait of the artist as an art-world heavy (on the cover of Art New Zealand, no. 43, Winter 1987) and a 1990 paparazzi shot by Barbara M. Bachman showing a more svelte Dashper (reproduced in his 1992 catalogue for Slide Show).5 Bachman’s photograph, taken in New York on Dashper’s thirtieth birthday, shows him celebrating with Allan Schwartzman, now art critic for the New York Times. Dashper treats these images as if they were his works.6
The Art New Zealand cover features Dashper with a tough haircut in a macho pose—legs astride, paint-splattered trousers. Behind him, one of his muscular action paintings leans on a corrugated iron shed. Two of man’s best friends look on. The cover earned the artist a huge amount of flak. At the time expressionism was extremely unfashionable amongst right-thinking art persons and Dashper was widely regarded as ‘a Julian Schnabel clone’.6 But Dashper’s cover was a cover version. It deliberately aped the feel of Hans Namuth’s publicity shots of Jackson Pollock from 1950. While it was condemned as crass expressionist posturing, the image could be better understood as being ironic quotation, in the vein of Cindy Sherman; exposing the workings of the myth, rather than simply exemplifying it.
Dashper refuses to align himself with any particular notion of photography. He engages with photography in its diversity of forms, means, and applications. In doing so, he has, over the years, perhaps accidentally, produced a large quantity of photographic work. In gathering together a selection of these works for this show, he exposes not photography’s essence (a notion of photography we could deal with easily) but instead its invisibility—its penetration into so many levels and aspects of the artworld and of art practice.
[IMAGE: Julian Dashper Untitled (The Scream) 1991–3]
- This is even true of the typeset works, which consist of contact prints from film negatives produced within a photosetting machine.
- There are other examples. Dashper’s Floral Poles (1992–3) are black-and-white photographs of details of his lurid orange Untitled (Julian Dashper) paintings (1992), again made from found canvas. The ‘paintings’ were in an edition of four, the ‘prints’ in an edition of twenty-five.
- Prior to his first American trip (1987–8), Dashper was generally regarded as an expressionist painter. In retrospect, his work from that time seems to foreshadow his later conceptually-based work. It seems to comment on expressionism rather than exemplify it. It explores the language, rhetorical devices, formats, ruses, and mythologies of expressionist painting.
- The drawings are based on the cross on the first-aid box in the middle of the photograph. The box is not present in Angus’s original. In fact, Dashper himself placed it in the scene before ‘documenting’ it.
- Another example of Dashper’s complicity in and appropriation of another artist’s photograph came with his exhibition The Painting Part (Centre for Contemporary Art, Hamilton, 1990). This show contained two paintings, one by the late Philip Clairmont and one by Dashper, plus two sequences of photographs by Mark Adams, documenting each painter painting their work. Clairmont’s expressionist ‘act of creation’ was echoed but inverted in the images of Dashper, which caught the younger artist constructing a huge, cool mock-modernist work. The exhibition drew attention to the artist-in-his- studio photography genre as a means of myth-making and a key resource in artworld hagiography.
- Lita Barrie, ‘Never Mind the Public’, National Business Review, 13 October 1989: W13. In 1988, Lindsey Bridget Shaw had already noted: ‘Art New Zealand 43 showed us that Julian Dashper, not content with ripping off the ideas of Julian Schnabel … is actually beginning to look like him.’ (‘Outside NZ Art Looking In’, New Zealand Listener, 9 April 1988: 35.)
Julian Dashper: Footnote Junkie
This is an earlier version of my ‘Dashper as Photographer’ catalogue essay. After reading it, Dashper revised the show’s selection, including the Art New Zealand cover and the Bachman image.
Julian Dashper persistently turns our attention to contingent, incidental, and supplementary aspects of art practice, the art world, and art history. He places art’s marginalia at the centre of his project. For instance, slides of a work are presented in lieu of the work itself and a modest watercolour becomes an alibi to explore cataloguing and labelling conventions. If Dashper’s works seem obscure, it is not because they are especially complex or intrinsically difficult, but because they proceed from what we hadn’t given a second thought.
In recent years, Dashper’s work has influenced the project of renovating New Zealand art history. Not only has his work been written into the story, it is influencing the way the story is being written. But, as Dashper becomes a central figure in New Zealand art, it is worth considering how his work also nags at the canon, as he turns the deconstructive impulse back onto his own work, asserting its contingent and incidental features. His recent show The Big Bang Theory is a great example.
Held at Auckland’s Artspace in 1993, the show revisited five installations Dashper had created the previous year. Each installation had featured a drumkit bearing the name of a canonical New Zealand artist. They were The Woollastons, The Drivers, The Hoteres, The Anguses, and The Colin McCahons. In each case, the drumkit itself was beside the point. What was significant was how the kits activated histories latent in the sites in which they were presented. The works were absolutely site-specific. The Big Bang Theory pretended to the status of a retrospective show, gathering and re-presenting those projects. In fact, it was an entirely new show marked by the absence of factors that had made those original installations so compelling. Dashper simply lined up the kits, leaving the job of recounting the their past lives to a well-appointed catalogue and its posse of eminent critics. The Big Bang Theory remained outside and ahead of the catalogue that presumed to deliver its truth.
Instead of reviewing the five projects, The Big Bang Theory became, in effect, the sixth and final site-specific installation in the series, recontextualising the kits in a space more redolent with Dashper’s own history than the histories of the five artists to whom the project seemed to be paying homage.1 In The Big Bang Theory, Dashper emphasised the way the retrospective show makes something new of the work it reframes, so is not a retrospective at all. What could have been a deadly presentation of the relics of his previous shows breathed with new possibilities. Dashper outwitted the very readings he had sponsored in his catalogue. Dashper continues to generate interference patterns with his new show, Julian Dashper Photography 1980–1994. Here, he has marshalled a disparate group of works that all incorporate photography in some way.
Dashper is not a photographer, at least not one with a capital P. Nor, for that matter, is he really a painter. Instead, he is some kind of conceptual artist, who draws on media as they become useful and appropriate. He may create an installation this week, cut a record next week. It is, therefore, curious that he has decided to construct this show around a medium. Clearly, the different photographs presented here relate less to one another as photographs than to other works in other media, with which they share thematic and aesthetic concerns. But, by gathering these ‘photographs’ as ‘photographs’, Dashper asks us to forget that for a second. His show begs questions. What is the ‘photography’ that these works have in common? What concept of ‘photography’ can meaningly encompass the documentary photograph Simone (1987) and the photo-setting of Futura italic ‘O’s in Untitled (The Scream) (1991–3)? And, what is Dashper’s relation to ‘photography’?
Dashper’s work constantly redeems the marginal. It might be interesting, then, to ponder what Dashper himself has exiled from this show. What about all the work he’s done utilising photocopying? And, if photosetting counts in the case of Untitled (The Scream), what about Dashper’s proposed cover for the Auckland phone book? And, why is the mixed-media work, Young Nick’s Head (1987), in a concurrent Dashper show at Manawatu Art Gallery rather than in this one, when it includes a photo. What about Dashper’s installation The Colin McCahons, which was, arguably, only set up in order to be photographed, and which exists principally as a photographic document?
And what of Dashper’s complicity in and appropriation of other photographers’ photographs of him? Where is Dashper’s artist book, The Mad Dog (1986), which includes Peter Hannken’s photograph of him standing in front of the fourteen-metre-high statue of the Virgin Mary at Paraparaumu? Where is the cover of Art New Zealand (no. 43, Winter 1987), showing a tubby Dashper in a Jackson Pollock pose, also shot by Hannken? Where is Mark Adams’s photographic sequence of Dashper at work in the studio—which riffs on Adams’s earlier sequence of Philip Clairmont in his studio? It featured in Dashper’s show, The Painting Part (Centre for Contemporary Art, Hamilton, 1990). Where is Barbara M. Bachman’s photo of a svelte Dashper tucking into cake, reproduced in his Slide Show catalogue (Christchurch: Robert McDougall Art Gallery, 1992)? It could be argued that such photographs lie outside Dashper’s own oeuvre. But he has always challenged assumptions about where the work begins and ends, whether it includes the label, the catalogue, the slides, the press kit, the myth. Such marginalia is as central to Dashper’s project as anything.
Julian Dashper: Photography 1980–1994 exemplifies what has been described, disparagingly, as a ‘seagull show’: a show that draws together works because they share a trivial feature (they all have a seagull in them, say), as if this feature were crucial. The term is usually used to tick off bad, lazy curators, and with cause.2 On this occasion, however, it is Dashper’s good fortune to be his own bad curator, sending us on a wild-goose chase. Dashper has curated a show that flies in the face of the work as much as it flies with it. But, in its arbitrariness, its curious inclusions and exclusions, its odd focuses and blindspots, it reopens old works to new thoughts. It makes them less familiar and grants them a new lease of life. In doing this show, Dashper asks whether relevant and insightful curating might not kill off the art faster than ‘the seagull show’.
- Julian Dashper’s work has featured in numerous Artspace shows, including Demolition Show (1988), Occupied Zone (1990), 100m2: A Ten-Year Survey (1990), and Light Sensitive (1992), and his solo show Water Color (1991).
- The term is Richard Killeen’s, apparently.