Painter’s Painter 

Work by John Dilg at Clough-Hanson.

Driving Through by John Dilg

Driving Through by John Dilg

The University of Iowa must be a magical place. A truly magical place. The University of Memphis, Memphis College of Art, and Rhodes College each have professors in their art departments who matriculated at Iowa. There are several practicing artists who went to art school in Iowa, who are living in the Memphis region. I have never met anyone who had a bad thing to say about art academia's shining beacon of hope for the entire art world. They are like a cult. They are everywhere.

I have known Hamlett Dobbins (director of the Clough-Hanson Gallery, proprietor of Material Art Space, and graduate of the University of Iowa) since he was an instructor of mine at the U of M in 2001. I have often made fun of Dobbins over the years for putting together another damn art exhibition in Memphis for someone from Iowa. He usually just laughs at me and says something to the effect of, "You can never run out of people from Iowa."

He may be right. Here is a short list of some of the artists with Iowa connections who have had exhibitions in Memphis the last several years: Joshua Huyser, Pete Schulte, Christine Buckton Tillman, Steven Wise, Carrie Pollack, T.L. Solien, Nathaniel Parsons, David Dunlap, and Jamison Brosseau. This is what one can easily call quite an impressive list. And not just an impressive list of exhibiting artists from Iowa but for artists who are from anywhere.

Perhaps at the top of that list is John Dilg, whose exhibition, "Sources in Another World," is currently on view at the Clough-Hanson Gallery through December 5th. Dilg, a professor of art at the University of Iowa, offers us a nice, polite, low-key painting exhibition of exaggerated and simplified landscapes. Each of the intimately sized pieces are painted with subtle variations of blues, cool greens, and siennas, which are inspired by the prairies of the Midwest, where Dilg has spent a majority of his life.

The scale, paint handling, and color scheme of this exhibition remind me of Susan Maakestad's work. Maakestad teaches painting at the Memphis College of Art and is a graduate of the University of Iowa. So, the aesthetic similarities are not surprising.

What is surprising is that the artist's hand is not present in the work. It is as if the paintings are machine-made, or, similar to Wade Guyton, the product of a large-format Epson printer. Even the trees in these embellished landscapes seem, at the very least, man-made. I am reminded of the cell phone towers in East Memphis that are inadvertently humorously disguised to look like trees in an attempt to blend into the landscape. Of course, these poorly camouflaged cell phone towers are even more obvious as a result. Yet, in Dilg's works, these trees fit seamlessly alongside the bulbous hillside and waterfall forms. However, suggesting that these works are somehow "painted" using a printer is a slanderous statement. The University of Iowa is a painter's painter school. (Another statement I have said to Dobbins over the years that has been appreciated none too much.)

I don't think humor is the intention of any these understated works in the exhibition, but it is there. Half Dome, Devil's Tower, From the Prairie, for example, has a polar-bear-looking creature majestically standing on a seemingly unscalable mountain after a game of king of the hill. I have not heard of many polar bears meandering through the Midwest. But, maybe. Also, I implore you not to think of the aforementioned East Memphis cell phone towers while looking at the painting Driving Through. But you will see those cell towers and then you will see them in just about every other painting in the exhibition and chuckle, just a little. I did.

There is one unsettling aspect of this exhibition. It is the "Wall of Inspiration" in the back of the gallery. The installation is comprised of salon-style source material for Dilg's work. There are pieces from friends and students (most are represented on the above list of artists), thrift-store paintings, and old signs. I understand why Dilg would choose to include this installation in the exhibition, showing this shared visual language and aesthetic that has had a presence in Memphis. However, for me, it is akin to seeing how sausage is made. You never want to know.

Besides, I believe insights into Dilg's practice and methodology are already present in two drawings, Another Origin of the World and Recent Applications, that hang in the small room to the left of the main gallery. Even the titles refer to the process of the paintings. Recent Applications comprises numerous small cells of information of the possible evolution of Dilg's visual language. This charcoal-on-canvas drawing was made six years before the other work in the show. Another Origin of the World, a graphite-on-paper piece, provides insight into the many slight permutations his work goes through before a final composition is decided.

Regardless, "Sources in Another World" is truly a pleasant exhibition. Hopefully, Hamlett Dobbins will never run out of artists from Iowa.

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