I am always dazzled by at least one work in a Dan Douke exhibition, and often more. In his first museum show, Bytes of Reality, at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California (March 26–July 17, 2011), which I reviewed for the Brooklyn Rail (July/August, 2011), that piece was his version of a molded plastic folding table leaning vertically against the wall, its white surface eroded to a slightly gray pallor from years of use.
Even though I knew that this was one of Douke’s uncanny hybrids — a painting-sculpture made of acrylic on canvas — I was struck once again by his extraordinary ability to replicate the look and feel of used things, his meticulous attention to the effects of time and human wear on something as ordinary as a folding table.
The associations that Douke’s “table” stirred up ranged from John McCracken’s fiberglass and resin slab paintings, which also lean against the wall, to the “deteriorating world” photographed by Robert Adams. Like Adams, Douke quietly and tenderly exposed the resignation and brooding desperation experienced in the lives of many Americans. The work is understated, a volcano that appears to be sleeping.
For all the exactitude of Douke’s works, they are not literal. Rather, they are but with metaphors and multiple narratives regarding everyday life and the death of painting. In his striving for perfection, Douke shares something with Vija Celmins, Catherine Murphy and Richard Artschwager, while, in his mandanity of subject matter, he is closer to Andy Warhol. However, Douke’s determination to replicate, in the medium of paint, the minutest effects of time on a taped, stamped, and scuffed cardboard box containing a new computer, case of energy drinks or cans of motor oil is something all his own, and for which he has yet to receive the attention I think he deserves. Like Celmins and Murphy, Douke recognizes that time is indifferent and destructive.
In his current exhibition, Recent Works, at Peter Mendenhall Gallery, Los Angeles, California (November 23, 2013–January 11, 2014), which I was lucky enough to see, I was so enthralled by “Green Mail Box with Messages” (2013) that it took me a long while to recognize how good the other works in the exhibition actually were. I have started thinking of this as “The Douke Experience” — where you spend so much time scrutinizing one work that you almost can’t see the others, at least not right off.
“Green Mail Box with Messages” is a life-size painting-sculpture that recreates a post office mailbox — not the kind your drop your cards and letters into, but the ones used by letter carriers to store and transfer mail. You see these green storage boxes in cities ands towns all over America, but you never actually use them. They are ubiquitous and, for the most part, nearly invisible — something seen but seldom paid attention to.
Covered with stickers of all kinds, each of which Douke has replicated in a tangible layer of acrylic paint that echoes the sticker’s paper-thin form, “Green Mail Box with Messages” underscores the transformation of certain urban sites into public kiosks where people of different beliefs and persuasions post their declarations.
The messages on Douke’s mailbox go from “Habitat for “Humanity” and “Save The Earth: There’s No Plan B” to “Save Trees: Don’t Wipe” and “Go Veg.” Some are graphic signs whose meaning is available only to the initiated. And this I think is one point of the piece — there is no language that binds us together, as we are all speaking in tongues.
Douke also includes a “sticker” with his daughter’s name, Samantha, and a made-up, pink sticker of Warhol’s black-white painting, “Before and After” (1962), which was derived from a newspaper ad for plastic surgery. The ad in Warhol’s painting promises, with its anti-Semitic undertones, perfection for those who can afford it, and, in that regard, subscribes to the classical ideals of beauty that Charles Baudelaire rightfully characterized as “despotic” in his groundbreaking essay, “The Painter of Modern Life.” Douke’s choice of a mailbox — a homely, defaced storage box for undelivered messages — suggests that classical beauty is an illusion. By leaving it open in the back so that viewers can see the stretcher bars and canvas, Douke makes it clear that he isn’t trying to fool us. Rather, he is framing our aesthetic experience — that of looking at art — as a space for reflection.
There was a smaller work, which I almost didn’t notice — a taped, cardboard case of an energy drink known as “Tropical Blast.” Once again I was reminded of Baudelaire, who, equating genius and childhood enthrallment, declared, “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” Douke seems to become completely enchanted by the most ordinary of things, and then takes his reaction to the next level by recreating that state of looking in a work of art.
Douke’s interest in boxes dates to 1977, when he moved away from hyperrealist paintings to making hybrid painting-sculptures that replicated dirty cardboard cases for motor oil, effectively subverting the cool, smooth and transparent finishes of an earlier generation of Los Angeles artists of associated with hot rod culture and “fetish finish.” His trompe l’oeil boxes of motor oil allude to what is beneath the auto lacquer and vacuum-formed plastic used by older L.A. artists such as Billy Al Bengston and Craig Kauffman.
In “Kingdom Come” (2012), Douke stacked a smaller shipping crate on top of a larger one. On the top of the large crate, the shipping label is clearly visible; the destination is “Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates” and the origin is “France.” Given the riots that took place in the Arabic and Northern African-dominated Parisian suburbs in 2005, as well the country’s ban on niqabs or burquas for Muslim women in public spaces, and the rise of Islamophobia across the West, one might wonder what exactly is being shipped. This is where Douke differs from artists such as Warhol, Donald Judd and Larry Bell, for whom the box was an inert form. Douke, in contrast, explores it as a container of message or desirable object, suggesting that its existence is temporary.
Mounted horizontally on the wall, “Code” (2013) consists of thirty-nine separate stretched canvases joined together to form seven units, each of which replicates a rectangular fruit crate. Alternating between closed and open, with the bottoms of the open ones painted a primary color (red, yellow and blue), Douke’s crates collides Judd’s minimalist boxes with the utilitarian boxes of anonymous farmer workers, rendering functional objects into non-functional ones, that is to say art — in this case, a sculpture framing three monochromatic paintings. While curators have focused on the affinities between Judd’s work and Shaker furniture, Douke connects it to something far more homely and underfoot.
One possible motivation behind Douke’s choice of the fruit crates as well as the fifteen pieces of milled lumber that form “Them” (2013), is the color-coding found on the ends of those objects. While there is undoubtedly a logic to the color-coding, the purpose remains arcane to the uninformed. Sensitive to the coded messages posted on mailboxes and to the color-coding used on fruit crates and milled lumber, Douke emphasizes that the world is beset with innumerable codes, signs and languages, none of which is understood by everyone. Douke undermines the idea that one language (or umbrella) might exist — whether it is labeled “modernism” or “postmodernism.” At the same time, the mailbox, milled lumber, packing crates and fruit boxes are “specific objects” waiting to be used.
In the face of oblivion, Douke responds to things that are inevitably defaced, destroyed or reused. Knowing that he cannot escape time, he devotes himself to painstakingly replicating anonymous objects that are considered either disposable or replaceable. For him, uniqueness seems to be found in experience, however mundane and routine, rather than in things, however exalted.
Daniel Douke: Recent Works continues at Peter Mendenhall Gallery (6150 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through January 11.