Dan Devening, “Yellow Table” (2003), oil on canvas, 25 x 33 inches (all images courtesy Devening Projects + Editions)

I met Dan Devening when I curated an exhibition, Broken/Window/Plane, for Tracy Williams (February 16 – March 17, 2012). Sadly, the gallery recently closed. Devening had come to the opening in support of Gary Stephan, whose work he shows in his gallery, Devening Projects + Editions, in an industrial building surrounded by brick houses in Chicago. I later learned from Stephan that Devening is an artist, which intrigued me. My curiosity only grew when Stephan said that he likes Devening’s work.

The first time I went to Devening Projects + Editions was to have a public talk with Gary Stephan about a show of his that Dan had mounted. I also saw a show of different artists’ work that he mounted at EXPO CHICAGO 2016 (September 22 – 25, 2016). In the latter show I discovered the work of Sean Sullivan, Alain Biltereyst, and Alison Wade. During a conversation with Dan I learned that he found Sullivan on Instagram. It seems that Dan looks at lots of social media forums and keeps up with the world of art in many different ways. I did not get around to asking him how he found Biltereyst, who lives and works in Brussels, Belgium.

Dan Devening, “Untitled” (2016), acrylic on Yupo paper on panel, 20 x 16 inches

Recently, while I was in Chicago to meet with some MFA students at the University of Chicago and give a talk about Robert Grosvenor at The Renaissance Society, I put aside enough time to get together with Dan, partly to see what he had up in his gallery, but also to see if I could get him to show me some of his own work, which he had not done in all the time that I have known him. It is not every day that you meet a self-effacing artist who makes no attempt to get you to see his work, but, in fact, points you to the work of others, only a few of which he shows.

I knew that Dan was exhibiting paintings by Peter Shear and ceramic sculpture by Mie Kongo, and that the show closed on February 11th, but that I could see it on the morning of 12th, before I went to the airport. I was not disappointed.

Shear, a self-taught painter who lives in Bloomington, Indiana, showed around thirty abstract paintings that measure ten by eight inches. Some were graphically strong, while others were conglomerations of distinct brushstrokes. Every painting had something going for it. The title of his exhibition, Editions of You, seemed apt. I liked Shear’s love for paint and painting. He seemed to want to make every kind of abstraction, and yet his work never looked derivative. Something of his — call it a feeling — emerged in every work I saw.  This was enough for me to want to see more. I believe Shear also posts his work on Instagram, but as I have not plugged into that yet, they were new to me.

Installation view of “Peter Shear, Editions of You” (2017), Devening Projects + Editions, Chicago

For her exhibition, Unknown Game Series, Mie Kongo showed sculptures made of porcelain, wood, earthenware, Plexiglas, and other materials. Each “untitled” sculpture was a stack of different geometric shapes, from triangles to semi-circles to cylinders and cubes. Every now and then she tucked a section of lathed wood or some other object or material within a stack. There was a castle-like structure assembled of different white geometric forms standing on a used wooden chair (the pedestal) in the center of the gallery, which I kept looking at. Did the floor slant slightly or was it the seat on which the sculpture sat? Both the overall structure and the individual pieces brought to mind the large, primary colored, soft blocks made of some kind of foam that young children play with. Kongo’s pristine porcelain structure seemed both sturdy and precarious — and the chair became an unapproachable mountain upon which this castle rose. I wished I had more to experience Kongo’s work, some of which are quite small.

Installation view of work by Peter Shear and Mie Kongo, Devening Projects + Editions, Chicago

And yet, as much as I wanted to see this show — and I was very happy that I did— I also wanted to see Devening’s own work. In the end, I did not see as much I wanted to, but I got a sense of it, and, for the time being, that will have to do. While he was bringing out work — moving it from his studio, which was down the hall, to the gallery — he talked about being both an artist and a curator, and wanting to bring these two activities closer together. Here I should interject, whenever I mentioned an artist that I thought might be of interest to Dan — the two I remember bringing up are Klaus Merkel and John Dilg – he already knew of the work, and, in the case of Dilg, planned on showing it.

I admire Devening’s voraciousness, especially since it comes from him, rather than from a commercial sense of the pre-approved. It is not what an artwork sold for elsewhere that interested him. But, as much as I like what Dan is up to, I had become really curious about his work. So seeing it this time satisfied something that had gnawed at me.

I saw about twenty works done over the last eighteen or nineteen years, from paintings to collages. One thing that I both want to hear and do not want to hear is the artist’s reasoning, why he or she works in a particular way. I cannot explain the push-pull this has on me, though I think it has to do with my reluctance to talk about why I write poetry, because any reason I come up with sounds pretentious. Let us return to Devening’s work. In some works, Devening started by rolling the paint onto the canvas — one color — until a thin sticky skin was formed. Depending upon the surface on which he laid the canvas, the paint’s sticky, monochrome skin might be interrupted by something on the surface. Using a rubber eraser — a kind of surrogate finger — he drew back into the paint. At times, the structures he hinted at seemed to be cousins to the machines Marcel Duchamp embedded in “The Large Glass” (1915-1923). In others, the looping lines evoked a visceral contact through erasure.

Installation view of work by Peter Shear and Mie Kongo, Devening Projects + Editions, Chicago

In the more recent work, he made collages on Yupo paper, which is made of polyester fiber. Sometimes, he folded the sheet so that it became a grid of creases. The combination of a loosely brushed monochrome ground and cut circles and semi-circles reminded me of the white circles you see on film leader. Bringing together optical fields and forms with clean edges, brushy grounds and geometric forms, print and paint could easily lead to disaster, but Devening finds his way through to what he calls an archive, a gathering together of his interests as an artist and organizer of exhibitions. While I am not sure that Devening has quite figured out how to put all these different possibilities together, it was also apparent to me that he was getting there.

After leaving Dan, and on my way to the airport to catch my flight home, these lines by Ezra Pound came to me:

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Devening’s care for art and artists is exemplary. His work is an important part of that equation.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...