Natural progressions: Dean Dass contemplates ‘The Kingdom’ at Les Yeux du Monde

Dean Dass’ “Upper Moormans, 2015” is part of his exploration of natural history, animal life and human migratory patterns in “The Kingdom”
at Les Yeux du Monde. Photo: Courtesy of the artist Dean Dass’ “Upper Moormans, 2015” is part of his exploration of natural history, animal life and human migratory patterns in “The Kingdom” at Les Yeux du Monde. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Nestled among the tall trunks of a forested area in Ivy, a studio is situated a short walk away from the home of artist Dean Dass. When making prints, he’ll often use his UVA studio, but for long-term and large-scale paintings and collage works, this home studio is the locus of activity.

“I always wanted to live in a forest,” says Dass. “It’s not as great as Helsinki, but it’s pretty nice.”

Between home and his workspace, a footbridge crosses a stream and the path is buried in pine needles and leaves at certain points. Though a short distance from a highway, the location embodies the very balance between the earthly and the sublime that Dass explores in much of his work.

This month, a selection of these works is on display at Les Yeux du Monde, curated by the gallery’s owner, Lyn Bolen Warren. Titled “The Kingdom,” the exhibition features the artist’s collected studies of natural history, ranging from paintings of clouds and birds to collaged prints of the migratory habitats of humans: in this case, taking the form of collaged prints of A-frame camping tents.

One of the selected works is an outgrowth of a Dass collage from 15 years ago, with new layers and a drawing added to alter its original appearance. Another piece is a recent landscape painting so monumental that Dass could very well continue adding to it for years to come. “I just sand it down and start building up again. I’ll work forever on a painting,” he admits.

Even smaller paintings of birds represent a significant investment of time by the artist. “It took a year to decide whether I should put the labels in or not, so that’s why it took me so long to get started,” says Dass. The result is detailed and endearing while also unsettling, perhaps reflective of the fact that the paintings are based on taxidermied birds in an avian archive. Here, the aesthetic is less about the graceful motion of flight and more about creating an empirical record of feather patterns.

Earlier this year, Dass gave the annual “Animals in the Kingdom of God” lecture at Calvin College in Michigan, and the name of this exhibit speaks to the same theme. “It implies a kind of inventory, a list: birds and animals, clouds, landscapes and all these creatures,” says Dass.

Though he recently exhibited for the launch of New City Arts’ Welcome Gallery in September, both Dass and Warren agree that was a lead-up to “The Kingdom.” The selection at Les Yeux du Monde is a more diverse mixture of his work and pieces that have been in progress for a longer period of time.

When he’s not creating his own work, Dass is a UVA printmaking professor and it’s rare to find a student who isn’t profoundly affected by his tutelage. Dass sees himself as a mentor but “at a certain point we’re just friends,” he says of his students, many of whom have found success as artists after graduation. Dass also considers himself a researcher, which is evident in his ongoing investigation into techniques and mediums. “Just like in biology or environmental science, it’s pure research,” he says. “It gives freedom from the market. Every painting is an experiment.”

One example of this openness to experimentation can be seen in his layered paper collages. “I think it’s interesting to make inkjet [printing] behave like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s not a photograph; it’s not a lithograph; it’s not a screenprint. It’s not anything [defined],” says Dass. Throughout Dass’ collages, the gossamer effect of this process lends an ethereal aesthetic to cellular structures or icons like the camping tent, which otherwise could be mistaken for a page torn from an old scouting guide.

“He defies all boundaries of mediums in print and comes up with amazing concoctions,” says Warren, who has been a supporter of Dass since he first arrived in Charlottesville in 1985.

“I went to his very first studio sale and I, who didn’t have any money, bought five of his prints,” she says. “They still speak to me and make me feel something. After many years, these are among my most cherished pieces of art.”

Dass has gone on to exhibit his work nationally and internationally, but remains a popular and respected presence in the region as well. “I go into houses and see his great pieces that we’ve sold that are being lived with and enjoyed constantly. It just feels so good,” says Warren.

On January 16, Les Yeux du Monde will host a gallery event with poetry readings, talks and performances by Stephen Hitchcock, Christopher Yates and others to accompany “The Kingdom.” This event, which begins at 4pm, is free and open to the public. The exhibition of Dass’ work will remain on display through January 18.

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