Skipping Across the Decades with Mark Dagley

Dagley’s new exhibition at Spencer Brownstone is a case study in sustaining a varied, disciplined investigation of painting as structure and object-making.

“Mark Dagley: Radical Structures” at Spencer Brownstone, installation view: left: “Crib” (1987); right: “Stacked” (1991) (all images courtesy of the artist and Spencer Brownstone Gallery)

Thirty years ago, Tony Shafrazi Gallery (then located on Mercer Street in Soho) presented Mark Dagley’s first solo exhibition. Of the 13 massive paintings in that long-ago show — their eccentrically blocky shapes and slick, glassy surfaces alluding, perhaps, to early video game graphics — three are included in the stunning Mark Dagley: Radical Structures, on view at Spencer Brownstone through January 21. The current exhibition also samples later phases of Dagley’s studio production, including four new works of unprecedented elegance. New, old and in-between, the work all looks great.

The show is both focused and freewheeling, underscoring the recursive nature of Dagley’s pursuit; the artist revisits material, compositional, and conceptual ideas over the long haul, turning them over in his mind to see if there’s something else to say with (or about) them. Here we have, then, a case study in sustaining a varied, disciplined investigation of painting as structure and object-making.

Mark Dagley, “Ghost” (1987), acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, 72 by 70 by 4 inches

Despite its essential emptiness, a wide rectangular aperture revealing the wall behind it is actually the primary feature of “Crib” (vinyl acrylic, acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, 60 by 70 by 4 inches, 1987), staring blankly at the viewer from within a gridded facade of keyed-up color swatches. The canvas’s crenellated bottom edge could be four little feet. Another shaped canvas, the glossy, black “Ghost” (acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, 72 by 70 by 4 inches, 1987), owing largely to its symmetrical structure, vaguely resembles a horned helmet or headdress, or a diving human figure, starkly silhouetted against the wall. To this day, these paintings remain “sitting comfortably in their own aura of hulking otherness,” as Nora Griffin wrote in her 2008 Dagley essay, “Plastic Fantastic Formalism.”

A floor piece, “Ziggurat” (acrylic, polymer resin on three canvases, 18 by 60 by 60 inches, 1987) is a sculpture made of square, black, pristine paintings, stacked. (Dagley tells me this is a reworked version of the striped original.) Positioned near the center of the gallery space, it is the calm, inscrutable eye in this storm of a show. Coincidentally, a bunch of ziggurat paintings by General Idea, fabricated at around the same time, are on view elsewhere in Manhattan at the moment. The Toronto collective’s ziggurats have four tiers; Dagley the reductivist gets it done with three.

Mark Dagley, “Ziggurat” (1987), acrylic, polymer resin on three canvases, 18 by 60 by 60 inches

The verticality continues in “Stacked” (acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, wood construction, 89 by 37 inches, 1991), a pair of squarish black canvases, one over the other and separated by a wooden lintel. A circular hole is cut from center of each canvas, through which a wooden cross brace is seen — shades of Steven Parrino (with whom Dagley shared studio space for a time). Griffin notes the relationship between some of Dagley’s earlier work and the clunky shapes and flat colors of Tetris, but “Stacked” looks every bit as much like the (very analog) snake-eyes domino tile.

Also dated 1991, “Constructed Facade” (acrylic on jute, wood, 130 by 93 inches) is another work that posits structural components — two vertical, rectangular panels and two nearly right triangles — as compositional elements. In this case, a length of course mesh partially veils the stretcher bars of the right panel of this towering work, which rests on the floor and leans against the wall. The left panel, smoky in tonality, receives an atypically painterly treatment of wet-into-wet horizontal brushstrokes from the artist; the two triangles sit on top of each panel,, diptych-proofing the painting.

Mark Dagley, “Constructed Facade” (1991), acrylic on jute, wood, 130 by 93 inches

A turn toward more conventional materials is demonstrated in “Vanishing Point” (acrylic on canvas, 97 by 59 inches, 1994), in which red, yellow, and blue stripes converge from the bottom and right sides to the upper left corner. The title refers to the pictorial-space-making system of one-point perspective, though the painting itself not particularly illusionistic; the suggestion of perpendicular horizontal and vertical planes creeps in like a sonic undertone. The same L-channel phenomenon is possibly even stronger in the much later “Secondary Color Vanishing Point” (acrylic and pencil on linen, 24 by 18 inches, 2006), in which orange, purple, and green stripes converge toward the upper right.

Dagley’s working drawings are revelatory; the show provides a nice selection. In various combinations of pen, pencil and acrylic paint, most are on graph paper, revealing the formal rigor of their conception. Many relate to the works from the 1990s and presumably depict stages in their development or ideas about alternate resolutions, such as “Drawing 4” (1991), a bifurcated parallelogram that divulges, perhaps, the latent influence of color-field painting, such as mid-1960s Kenneth Noland, on “Constructed Facade.”

In other drawings, Dagley plays with variations on a six-sided polygon that looks a bit like a rectangle walking into the wind. One outcome of these preliminary studies, it appears, is the magisterial “Vog” (acrylic and enamel on canvas, 70 by 52 inches, 1993). The bottom fifth or so of this glossy, blackish monochrome is canted at an angle of maybe 30 degrees; as with Frank Stella’s “Running V” paintings, also from the mid-1960s, photographs of this work overplay the illusion of perspective which, in person, is no stronger than the painting’s resolute flatness.

Mark Dagley, “Untitled (Brass Relief 2)” (2017), brushed brass, 50 by 41 inches

Fast forward 15 years to “Untitled (Brass Relief 2)” (brushed brass, 50 by 41 inches, 2017). The basic shape of “Vog” is flipped vertically, so the right-leaning section is at the top, and the angle is sharper — more like 45 degrees. Almost an inch thick, the metal is lush and lustrous, its surface having been worked over with a metal brush — in that sense it’s more “painterly” than the actual painted coating of “Vog.”

Two other metal-relief-cum-paintings, “Untitled (Copper Relief)” and “Untitled (Brass Relief),” face each other from the pale cinder-block walls of the gallery’s cloistered outdoor space, where the difference in the metals’ coloration is plain. (The copper has reddish undertones; the brass, yellowish.) Their twisting shapes elaborate further on the illusionistic possibilities of the 45-degree angle.

Between them stands “Evergreen” (enamel on MDF, 96 by 40 by 40 inches, 2017), another painting in the round, which harks back to “Ziggeraut.” Even without the title, the iconographic reference would be unmissable — the work consists of two intersecting, perpendicular planes in the color and shape of (a child’s rendering of) a fir tree. Its zig-zag, sawtooth contour glances back to “Vog,” to “Constructed Facade,” even all the way back to “Untitled” (1976), a banged-together, wood-and-cardboard construction from Dagley’s student days. The artist’s playfully methodical approach is no doubt capable of yielding many more surprising iterations.

Mark Dagley: Radical Structures continues at Spencer Brownstone (170-B Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 21.

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