Skulls!, or a conversation about Jim Dine at the Chazen

Two writers discuss the collection of skull-centric artwork that recently arrived at Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art.

Two writers discuss the collection of skull-centric artwork that recently arrived at Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art. | By Frankie Mastrangelo and Scott Gordon (Photo: Jim Dine, “The Plow.”)

Skulls pop up across art history, and literature, cultural tradition. Whether a skull is acting as an artist’s commentary on human mortality, an artifact celebrating an individual’s life, or simply to inspire feelings of doom and gloom, it’s a recognizable symbol charged with meaning. Jim Dine’s exhibition “I knew him.”—running through Aug. 17 at the Chazen Museum of Art—explores and challenges common interpretations associated with the bare cranium, via 67 skull-centric works Dine produced between 1982 and 2000. Thinking back to our high school English classes, that “I knew him” line might sound familiar. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character yells out, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest. . .” upon seeing the skull of an old friend. When Hamlet draws a connection between the inanimate skull and Yorick’s lively existence, we view the skull as more than just a remnant. The skull is open to interpretation—something rich with nuance that speaks to our perceptions of life and death. This show asks, what do we really know about the skull? Below, Frankie Mastrangelo and Scott Gordon trade notes on the exhibit.

Scott: The show kept me off-balance, not because it’s all skulls, but because the presentation of said skulls is so varied. It’s often dark and confrontational—the huge, ungainly “The Plow,” and the axes jammed into the canvas of “Politika”—and just as often gentle and not-huge, especially in the several paintings that pair skulls with  watercolor-dotted hearts. The section of subdued black-and-white photos drew me back the most, especially “Skull in a Bag #2.” It’s just a skull in a plastic bag, which normally might seem clinical or morbid, but here it’s kind of stately.

Also, it really is all skulls. While it’s powerful to see a show on a single theme in an artist’s work, especially over such a long period and in such variety, I can’t help but wonder if the occasional non-skull work would help put it in context. Then again, I know that if I ever encounter non-skull work of Dine’s in the future, I’ll come into it without knowing what to expect, and that’s refreshing in a way. There’s something bold about not just trying to put together an overview or general introduction to an artist’s work. How did the skull-saturation go over with you?

Frankie: The show’s diversity of skull depictions kept me off-balance too. For me, the exhibit’s ability to evoke playful sentiments through colorful watercolors while just as easily inspiring haunting sensibilities through distressed, monochromatic skull profiles definitely evidenced Dine’s range as an artist. Dine’s frequent juxtaposition of multicolored palettes and black/grey schemes, such as in “Sovereign Nights,” invests his works with a sharp perspective; the viewer is disallowed from getting comfortable with a particular visual experience.

The inclusion of tools and rugged, naily wood crosses on paintings such as “Then the Skull Will Be an Angel’s Face” and “Politika’ provoked a certain complexity of sensory stimulation. These objects introduced suggestions of violence and religious symbolism, producing a tactile, eerie connection to enigmatic topics.

I will say that I felt the black and white photographs were the least compelling part of the exhibit to me. While I felt that the “Skull in a Bag” photos created an interesting marriage of sinister and elegant qualities, I thought many of the photos just fell flat. Poetry on a chalkboard serves as a backdrop for a series of 3 photos, featuring lines such as “from where I sit your heart still eludes me.” These bits of literary accompaniment mostly just made me think about My Chemical Romance lyrics. Also, the Pinocchio-looking dolls and figurines of wolves in cocktail party attire positioned beside skulls in certain photographs called to mind a teen goth’s Instagram.

Scott: I can see why the photos fell short for you, especially given how much other works accomplish without words or goofy dolls. Maybe, as easy as it is to talk of Dine in terms of pop art or found objects, we’re kind of getting a reminder that those things have their limits. (Or at least, said dolls aren’t that impressive when the other big “found object” piece is a huge plow with a giant skull on top of it.) After stewing on it for a few days, what’s sticking with me just as much is the softer, more vague effects of pieces like “From Earth” and “My Nights In Santa Monica.” “From Earth” is definitely a bit unsettling, but both of them (and many other works here) tend to use the skull in a more humanizing way. Without reading too much into it or ascribing motives, don’t you think there’s a sustained effort here to get past the idea of the skull as something monstrous or ominous?

Jim Dine,

Jim Dine, “My Nights In Santa Monica”

Frankie: I think the exhibit does transcend this idea of the skull’s expected designation as something ominous. Just in recalling the different skull profiles Dine created, I’m reminded how those pieces carried a sense of intimacy. Seeing a figure that tends to symbolize horror or fear positioned in a variety of angles highlights the precise, beautiful details unique to that particular skull. Dine creates a space in which the skull can be viewed from different perspectives and, as a result, the exhibit invests the skull with a more multi-dimensional feeling. By experiencing the skull from diverse angles, in varied colors, and set in contrast to sometimes unexpected figures (hearts, vases), Dine brings us closer to the idea of the skull. I think since things we regard as monstrous and ominous tend to retain their eerie qualities through abstraction, Dine challenges common perceptions of the skull through exploring that abstraction.

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