The “Dean Dass: New Paintings and Works on Paper” exhibition on view at Les Yeux du Monde offers the double pleasure of Dass’ luscious landscapes paired with his more mystical media-rich works on paper.
A professor of printmaking at UVA, Dass took up landscape painting in 1994 while on sabbatical in New Hampshire. He was drawn to the austerity of the “lonely” northern landscape, an affinity that continues to this day in his paintings of Virginia, Ireland, and Lapland.
Dass seems drawn to transitions of seasons and times of day and he’s very good at conveying them. He paints places (beaches, marshes, riverbanks) where color is naturally restrained. Umbers, grays, lavenders, and olives are his hues of choice, and yet Dass is not shy when it comes to water and light. His blue is dazzling and dead-on in “Mechums River.” And so too are his reflections on a wintery pond, and the peachy glow of the rising sun lining the horizon of “Allendale Pond.”
The paintings are abstract compositions of brushstrokes, which coalesce into a recognizable scene at a distance. “Caherciveen” is a blurry, nearly non-objective work that somehow resolves itself into a seascape that could only be Ireland. “Lake Michigan” is basically an abstract study of gray lines, and in “Blue Hole” Dass blocks out snow and rocks using a dynamic pattern of jagged splotches of pigment in white and russet.
Dass is a master of atmospheric effects, which add mood and veracity. “Stream Above the Upper Moormans” captures one of those moments that is both crystalline and hazy, with sunlight filtering through misty air above the river.
These are contemplative works evoking stillness, quietude, and a reverence for nature that recalls 19th century notions of the sublime. But unlike 19th century artists who focused on majestic scenery, Dass chooses ordinary scenes of nature available to any of us if we wander into the woods, pass by a marsh, or stroll on a beach.
His lyrical approach draws attention to the beauty and numinous quality dwelling in serene, often overlooked, corners. Looking at these works, one understands there is more going on here than just a beautifully painted landscape. I think of Emerson and Thoreau and am reminded of the great art historian Barbara Novack’s thesis concerning the deep spiritual significance of the land for 19th century Americans and how, in essence, without a religious art tradition in America, landscape filled that role with contemporary artists acting as interpreters of and conduits to the divine.
At the same time that he was producing these potent odes to nature, Dass was also working in a more stylized direction with his “Clouds” series. Begun in February 2007 when he was in Finland on the bleak Russian border, these works on paper harken back to his earlier prints. Indeed, Dass said, “They are what have happened to the prints. They’re a continuation of something I’ve done ever since the ’80s.”
Using kaolin (white porcelain clay), marble dust, and titanium white pigments, he applies what he describes as a “heavy mineral slurry” between layers of the delicate Japanese papers to build up the surface and add texture. He also uses inks to add diffused color—the “memory of a color”—flowing in different, unexpected ways “much like sediment flowing in a stream,” and creating the curious radiating cloud shapes. Dass thinks of them as creature-like and has said they are about love spreading in all directions.
While you or I might see two distinct bodies of work with different styles, media and technique in his clouds and landscapes, Dass acknowledges this dichotomy, but maintains that the two are closely tied. “It’s always been the question that everyone asks, that I ask myself, even,” said Dass. “What am I doing, what are these two things going on? But formally they’re coming together more, though that’s not something I focus on.”
From Dass’ perspective the two subjects are natural choices. “The clouds take place in the heavens and the landscapes are on earth that’s really how I think about it,” he said. “The two kinds of painting—clouds and landscapes—keep outflanking any definition of what I think they are or are doing. I think they are slippery categories.”
Despite the stylistic and technical differences of the work, gallery director Lyn Warren noted a link: “Even though Dean works in so many different media, from oil to prints, sculpture, and books, they all have something similar. I think it’s the quality of light, something evanescent maybe. I find it interesting how he almost wants to reverse certain properties: his clouds are earthy, made with minerals. They have more weight, symbolically, visually and physically than the paintings. Yes, they’re on paper, but they’re put on panel so that makes them heavier. The paintings end up looking more ethereal than the clouds do.”