Kent Dorn

Freight + Volume, New York

John Ewing

Kent Dorn, Phenomenon, 2010; mixed media on canvas; 32 x 34 inches; courtesy the artist and Freight + Volume, New York

Kent Dorn, Untitled (Van), 2010; mixed media on canvas; 45 x 69 inches; courtesy the artist and Freight + Volume, New York

In Remains, Kent Dorn’s New York solo debut at Freight + Volume, the South Carolina-born artist returns to his rural roots or, rather, an idealized vision of “youth in the woods.” In the painting Down by the River, a group of teens skinny-dip at night under a full, butter-yellow moon. The gallery press release describes this image as a “slacker’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” referencing Edouard Manet’s controversial masterpiece. Indeed, like Manet, Dorn is an able chronicler of his time (its physicality and vibe), while pushing the envelope of what painting may depict, and how.

With some twenty-nine variously sized mixed-media paintings installed over two separate spaces, the exhibition is a tad larger than it needs to be, but Dorn, an MFA graduate of the University of Houston, is skilled in sustaining a coherent, cohesive mood across the whole of the show. That yellow moon is key; it shows up aggressively in nearly half of the works, casting a pervasive illumination that feels both menacing and hypnotic. The figures in the paintings—mostly loafing, aimless-looking youth—appear not so much entranced by the night sky’s unnaturally bright glow as inured to it, like a parental voice they’ve learned to tune out. Are they dour or merely waiting and watchful? Seated on rocks or standing with their backs to the viewer, most are slump-shouldered and appear deep in thought. There are also campers and hikers among them, exploring the woods under the constant moon that’s hard-edged like a pill.

What might seem indolent or opaque in the subject matter is given a vivid psychological profile through the artist’s dynamic handling of paint, which in places calls to mind the wilder surface stylistics of Laura Owens or John Currin. Dorn treats the canvas as a membrane to penetrate in both directions. Most of the pictures start as nature scenes roughed out in thin washes that saturate the canvas. He then builds on this platform with thick paint in various places to render portions of the image craggy and three-dimensional—a backpack pops out here, a rock there. Additionally, Dorn inserts or applies colored push pins and other studio detritus to the surface for an even chunkier “reality.” The invigorating effect of this contrast in styles evokes an innocent sense of wonder, a feeling intensified by Dorn’s children’s book illustration style in the roughed-out scenes and the homemade play-dough feel of the built-up areas.

In the show’s numerous portraits (c. 2005–09, hung in a separate gallery), these sections of impasto are even more pronounced and include, reportedly, hunks of dried paint recovered straight from the palette. A motley crew, the portrait figures sport shaggy beards; selected features, such as eyes, lips and ears, are clips from photographic images that are embedded in the surrounding paint. Within the context of the rest of the show, one is left to speculate on each figure’s MO—woodsman, meth cooker, wise man, pedophile? With ambiguous titles like Drifter, Fugitive, Survivalist, Mystic, it’s anyone’s guess.

A druggy, hallucinogenic vibe pulses through all of the work on view. There are cutesy, chunky “portraits” of cartoon-like mushrooms (Untitled [Decomposers]), and Dorn’s built-up areas of paint seem to grow out of the canvas like fungi. Phenomenon depicts one of the bearded men stunned in the forest, eyes glowing green, while an eerie, rainbow-like event shoots from the night sky down through his body. In other works without figures, the subjects are nondescript locales—Untitled (Cabin), Untitled (Van). Given Dorn’s nuanced rendering of figures, these images display an arresting lack of specificity, the kind of intentional blankness that marks settings where teenagers hide out and “get up to no good.” Slightly more sinister, though painted with cryptic cheeriness, are the evocations here and there of death—a pair of skulls in winter caps, a dead blue jay on its back, Albert Camus’ gravestone, a wooden sign painted with the words “The End.”

Yet, as with everything in this dreamy and moon-soaked idyll, the artist deploys the cover of night as a strangely illuminated enchantment. In Dorn’s woods (a moral universe?), the liminal boundaries of innocence and corruption, natural and fake, appear suspended as his subjects “hang out.” Sure, viewers are free to project, but Dorn’s palette doesn’t judge.

John Ewing is a New York-based writer and editor and Copy Editor of Art Lies.

The exhibition will be on view through January 4, 2011.

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