Plastic Fantastic Formalism: Mark Dagley, by Nora Griffin

Here we are far from the living-room and close to science-fiction Jean Baudrillard,
“The Ecstasy of Communication”

Your aluminum finish slightly diminished is the best I ever have seen Jefferson Airplane,
“Plastic Fantastic Lover”

In 1987, the year Mark Dagley’s paintings currently on view at Minus Space were first exhibited at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, abstract painting was exploring its newfound relationship to the digital age. The hard-edge lines and shapes that had been a mainstay of avant-garde trends in abstraction from painters as different as Kazimir Malevich and Gerald Murphy in the teens and 1920s to Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella in the 1950s and 60s, were being used by painters in the 1980s to symbolize the allusive space inside a computer.

In 1987 the latest innovations in computer technology were delivered to us as squat, clunky objects. From the first home IBM models to the hulking video game stations found in every bar in the East Village, the information encoded in the machine was inseparable from its physical structure. Twenty years later, in our relentless attempts to assume authority and ownership over the unfathomable, computers are increasingly designed for minimal effect–sleek, aluminum, and pearly, they are veritable “non-sites” of information. This transformation from an object-based system of communication to an increasingly virtual method of transmission is mirrored in abstract painting’s move from an embodiment of frontal space, manifested through color, form and canvas shape, towards the illusion of infinite space, rendered with digital-like precision.

Dagley’s paintings, like these now ancient-seeming machines, bring us back to a time when information and form were unabashedly conjoined in one package. The awareness of abstraction in painting as a historical continuum was married to a Downtown street aesthetic, bringing new color, form and texture into studio practice. The surface of each painting is an all-over glossy, impenetrable substance–a mirrored screen that camouflages a handcrafted construction, from visible canvas edges, to the elegant wood structure.

The four paintings selected for this Crib and Standard, suggest an otherworldly artist’s basement laboratory, an abstraction from the graveyard. When confesses that after the successful completion the painting “seemed to take on a prompting him to construct a series from variations design. However, like Frankenstein, contained too much latent power for After debuting the works in a celebrated Shafrazi, Dagley moved on to politer canvases and began experimenting pieces.

The Shafrazi paintings are mutable, on a myriad of meanings and forms, sublimely lacquered diner tabletops to Tetris space. The play of contrasts, from wooden support, suggests an inanimate Sitting comfortably in their own aura the paintings are like mutant rejects showroom, with an aesthetic tang that pulls surface repels at the same time.

Clone is the diabolical court jester of the group, coming the closest to suggesting an infinite space beyond the visible field of the viewer. The painting’s precisely delineated diamond pattern of mauve, pale yellow, maroon red, greygreen and navy is cut-off indeterminately at its edges. A rectangle of space cut out of its middle creates a thickly improbable frame in fairground colors for any slip of wall space behind Clone. The cut-away frame is a device that Dagley returns to in many of his pieces, ranging from simple rectangle borders to the step-ladder, geometric edge of Clone and Crib. Hero, not on view at MINUS SPACE, but exhibited at Shafrazi, took on a figurative life of its own as a jack-o-lantern-like face with square eyes, nose and mouth. Ghost, a severe jet-black, and Crib, in tropical starburst hues, are animated enough to appear as long-lost Pacman figures. Like the first blocky faces and bodies in computer games, a human form is referenced through minimal visual cues.

The trial and error experimentation involved in the conception and execution of the Shafrazi series is at once playful and workmen-like. Dagley realizes the final structure and color pattern through acrylic sketches, a kind of painter’s blueprint model for the finished architecture. The second step is to build a half-size cardboard maquette of the form. It is only after these preliminary works have been made that Dagley begins work on the final structure. An even surface of polymer resin is applied to the hard-edged acrylic paint job, adding a thickness and sheen that becomes brilliantly apparent after a thorough going over with a propane torch to remove air bubbles.

Dagley first discovered polymer’s sensitivity to oxygen distributed by the torch by unsuccessfully attempting to even the surface by blowing on it. The visible result of applying a synthetic plastic to the paint is that over time the colors have slightly warmed in hue, adding a patina of gravitas to an otherwise fun-loving palette.

Steven Parrino, Dagley’s studio mate in the late 1980s, was conducting his own experiments in the deconstruction of traditional painting supports, giving the tired mantra of “the death of painting,” an amplified existential bent. Immaculately constructed minimalist canvases in black, silver, white, and red were cut in half or loosely re-stretched on their frame, granting a baroque symmetry to the painter’s fatal motorcycle accident.

Parrino’s art, inspired by the limits of theory, was able to encompass the heartbeat of life itself. Similarly Dagley’s Shafrazi paintings belong to the unruly class of geometric abstraction that indulges in an outsider diet of industry, punk rock, perceptual games, and a shot of 1960s cool. The formal tropes of abstract painting are clearly understood with reverence–why else would they be so jocularly pushed to their extremes?

In a recent conversation with painter Don Voisine, Dagley revealed that his original conception of the series was fed by a need to create objects that were ‘not in the least bit cynical.’ The paintings have now been brought to a new audience at MINUS SPACE after twenty years stuck in pause, and it is our privilege to be able to experience again this reverential and formal abstraction masked as insouciance. One thing is certain, for Mark Dagley’s paintings there will never be a final game over.


Nora Griffin is a Brooklyn painter and writer for The Brooklyn Rail.