Dawn Black’s House of Games

“You see, in my trade, this is called — what you did — you cracked out of turn. Huh? You see? You crumbed the play.”

— Character Mike, House of Games, 1987, David Mamet

We crumble the play all the time. This is because the more statements we make about ourselves, the more we never say. Who we present to the world is a balance of subconscious and conscious. The former holds our basic appetites and determines many of our behaviors. It is where the impolite stuff that drives us — lusts, appetites, fears and vanities fester.

For the most part, these desires are not the most desirable aspect of our personality. In order to cover these basic drives, people become self-conscience and measure their actions. Societies develop an unwritten code of conduct called manners. Dawn Black examines these dynamics in Incitements of Folly, her current exhibition at Independent Art Project, North Adams, Massachusetts.

Black uses ink, watercolors and gouache to paint Surrealist images. Black weaves images of sexuality and power together where some are easily legible. Muse and Mistress (2015) depicts a young women lifting a hood from her face. This reveals two doll-sized female figures; one dressed in gold, the other in black latex. While it’s not immediately evident which of the smaller figures is the muse or the mistress, the work clearly deals with the separation of the Id and the Ego.

Dawn Black, Muse and Mistress, 2015 gouache, watercolor and ink on paper 46 x 35 inches

It’s the simplest and clearest image in the exhibition, and the tension between conscious and subconscious thought is most evident. The subjects, sexuality and power, are clearly grounded in the subconscious. This is countered by Black’s highly deliberate rendering style. Everything about this drawing — even its imperfections — read as a conscious choice by the artists. Her other images include some unexplained elements. This creates a cryptic quality that lends itself to the surreal.

One of the reoccurring tactics that Black employs is banally appropriating an image or narrative and using it as the basis of her picture. She uses this superficial borrowing as a trigger to create highly provocative images. In her 2015 work, Folly’s Burden, Black applies the same process except instead of borrowing from a story, she takes an entire image. The work is based on Karl Friedrich Schinkel, stage designer for Motzart’s Die Zauberflöte, The Magic Flute.

The Queen of the Night enters the opera standing on a crescent moon. Black replaces the queen with an image of masked women carrying two water containers. This piece is a bit more uncomfortable because of the most interesting elements—the crescent moon sitting on its side, a woman walking among the clouds and using a series of parallel dots to mimic a dome—come from the original image. The insertion of a woman carrying a scale reads as almost arbitrary.

Truth’s Weight (2015) also illustrates this process. The image depicts a man carrying scales on his back. On the left plate is a thin naked woman; while on the right is a bearded woman in a pink dress. These two images interact to create a thesis on the complexity of sexuality. At first, the image on the right seems like more of a perversion for two reasons. First, it’s drastically out of proportion compared to the other two figures in the image. Second is, of course, the use of mixed gender identifiers—the beard and the pink dress.

Dawn Black, Truths Weight, 2015 (detail) gouache, watercolor and ink on paper 46 x 35 inches

But as you look at the image you realize that, although it’s more subtle, the image on the left is equally abstracted. The elongated legs seem more proportioned for a spider than a human. The torso tapers to a tiny waist and then two legs flair out without any indication of hips. The figure reads more like an accurate depiction of a teenage boy’s imagination of a woman than an actually anatomically correct woman. This is also reinforced by a cultural absurdity of a fully naked woman wearing only a jewelry and stilettos. Juxtaposing the two images on a set of scales forces the viewer to consider which one is perverted more. While the image on the right is illogical and weird, so is the Id. The image on the right is anything but sexual. It’s sanitized sexuality with all the messy gooey aspects gutted.

The narrative comes from an Egyptian myth of Ma’at, a goddess who would select the worthy based on the weight of a feather. If the person’s heart weighed less than a feather they could proceed on to the afterlife. This is referenced by a single feather in the upper left of the image. None of this narrative is known to the viewer unless they read the artist’s statement or are lucky enough to have the artist standing beside them while they look at the work. Normally, this would be a very damning statement. It can be frustrating to experience images that require a secret decoder ring to figure out what is going on in them. Here, however, the image is powerful with or without the knowledge of the appropriated text. The Ma’at mythology is a metaphor for a certain aspect of the human condition. Black uses some of the imagery to trigger her own exploration of the human condition: the complexity and inadequacy of female objectification. Whether or not related to the context of the original mythology, the image Black creates provokes.

This banal borrowing reflects perhaps the most difficult and maybe the strongest aspect of Black’s images. One of the pretensions of civil society is that sex, power and violence are three separate entities governed by their own set of rules. Black presents images that intertwine like macramé.

Our Brood(2011) includes images of a seated nude woman being dominated by a woman in what looks like a combination lace chainmail outfit. The BDSM exchange play of power in the pairing is mimicked at the bottom of the image by several young boys playing with guns. Some of the guns are obviously toys. One boy is holding up what looks like a wire hanger bent into the shape of a gun. Most of the objects are either real guns or realistic looking toys. The results are images that disturb because they mix the associations so casually

Juggling our subconscious and conscious identities is a fine line for social beings. We often fail—we “crumbed the play”. People presume far more about us than we want them to. At first glance, Black’s obsessive calculation seems to overcome this, except that a controlled obsession with power, balance, and sexuality would seem to reveal a lot about Black. She becomes very much like Mamet’s character Mike in that we are left wondering if we only know as much as she wants us to know.

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All images courtesy of Cynthia-Reeves