Kent Dorn's paintings give us a natural world that feels unnatural: It's as grungy as a back alley and kinda icky. "Dweller," his show at Bryan Miller Gallery, features cigarettes in the grass, cars parked in the forest and a '70s vibe.
Dead End (Water's Edge) (2011) is a landscape scene depicting the sandy shore of a lake in the woods. In theory, it could be a sunny, idyllic scene, but in Dorn's hands, it's misty and gloomy, with a lackluster yellow sun. He soaks thin, watered-down washes of color into the canvas, creating grayish-green silhouettes of trees and foliage. The artist contrasts this watercolor-y imagery with clunky 3-D rocks and sticks he's added with some kind of dense, paste-like wax material.
There's a campfire going, but instead of depicting a cozy scene, Dorn has parked what looks like a '74 Impala near the water, suitcases roped to the roof. The unseen occupants seem like urban people who have found themselves in the woods. They're camping because they're on the road and can't afford a motel, or because they're living out of their car. Being in the woods doesn't feel like a choice. Which reminds us: Where are they?
There's something that looks like a red and black flannel shirt on the ground. And then there is some other smeary red thing that could be fabric as well but looks more like a raw hunk of flesh. A length of bright yellow rope on the ground adds a maybe-ominous accent. There's enough ambiguity to yield a range of interpretations.
Another lake scene, Untitled (2012), has a similar sort of moodiness, with isolated patches of thick, chunky foliage in the foreground and background. Standing waist-deep in the middle of the lake is a slender, pale young man with long dark Jesus hair and beard. There is something kind of glowing and ethereal about him, until you notice Dorn has built up his nose with a pink glob of something that looks pretty much like chewing gum; the absurd addition totally makes the painting.
Other work becomes more overtly goofy. The washed-out imagery is gone in these paintings. Dorn slathers on icing-thick additions to his canvas that border on the gross, but in a comic way. Two small paintings of mushrooms have surfaces so thickly and irregularly built up that they feel like someone troweled them over with leftover stucco. (Dorn's materials are variously listed as oil, wax, paint skins and mixed media.)
Decomposer (2012) features a gunky, cartoon-like red mushroom with white polka dots; it's the sort of cutesy mushroom that got appliquéd on 1970s tea towels or made into decorative tchotchkes. Cigarettes are rendered lying around the base of the mushroom. The piece reminds me of Roxy Paine's hyper-real re-creations of scrubby poison ivy strewn with syringes, empty Thunderbird bottles and used condoms. Dorn's mushroom draws on vintage kitsch, but it's also playing on the fact that the real-world source for that stylized image is a hallucinogenic red mushroom with white dots. It's somehow sneakier than Paine's in-your-face abjectness. Dorn lures you in with the seemingly harmless and the hokey.
In other paintings, Dorn creates text over more thickly applied and irregularly shaped grounds. He has written the words "The End" in wonky green letters that look like they were squirted out of a pastry tube but that also have a slimy, scatological vibe to them. Flaccid red, pink and white flowers are dotted around the vine-green letters and set against a mud (stone?) background. Thin lines of light-green stuff are squirted all over the place. These gloopy constructions are reminiscent of the fake nature of a Disneyland attraction, but one created by a tripping "Imagineer."
Dorn's work moves from the creepy undertones of the landscapes to the subversively cheerful ickiness of the mushroom and text pieces. His images are provocative, but what really makes this work is the artist's ability to use materials so evocatively. The viscerality of whatever the hell he's using to build up the surfaces is what ultimately gets you. How in the world do you create stuff that simultaneously reads as birthday cake icing and something you want to scrape off your shoe as fast as possible? Seriously, the guy has a talent.
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