Gone classical 

“Tits and ass” abounding, most of the 12 curiously hybrid paintings in famed Detroit graphic illustrator and satirical artist Mark Dancey’s current CPOP exhibition are female nudes, some buxom and fleshy, the others trim and athletic (in a twisted way). The nude figures are suspended by or attached to an infinite red trapeze-like rope of red cloth knotted together, creating a sash. They are by some estimations erotic and perhaps by others parodies of female stereotypes or even harpies.

Yet in their amazing classical backdrops, they are intimately painted, individualized, beautiful female figures — bound to this metaphorically evocative menstrual rope — that arouse our interest and sympathy. These are strange explorations of female identity. The exceptions to this rule are two paintings of figures that likely function as alter egos or “self-portraits” of the artist and constitute a kind of humble confessional. One is of a baby surrounded by a lotus flower and skull (“I Too, Am In The Garden”), and the other is of a deranged, long-in-the-yellow-tooth codger who rages at the sky from an empty wrinkled bed (“Beethoven, Going Not Gentle Into That Good Night”) while one of Dancey’s naked women flees. These paintings make for a challenging contrast to the female nudes.

Most interesting is that the paintings have a technical mastery that makes them look like Renaissance paintings or echo the high seriousness of religious and historical references that exist in European art. The varnished flat surfaces are composed of delicate, studied crosshatched brush strokes as if mimicking the frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, Flemish masterpieces or even Diego Rivera’s “Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. They are all convincingly painted in a classical tradition. All but one of the paintings are round, which requires extraordinary skill to achieve the convincing perspective. They are composed so as to give the impression that you are looking at the domes of cathedrals. The female figures are cast against skies that remind us of the classic masterpieces.

This is not the handwork of the Mark Dancey most people know about. Dancey has been around the hip pop music and culture scene for years. He played guitar for the seminal Detroit rock band Big Chief; as an art cartoonist and illustrator he was nationally, if not internationally, infamous for his satirical magazine Motorbooty, of which he was also publisher, editor and occasional writer.

Fellow artist and CPOP Gallery mate Glen Barr said, “At one time, Mark was a really engaged musician. But what’s really amazing is that he just stopped. One day he put down his guitar and I don’t think he’s ever picked it up again.” Asked about where the satire went, Barr said, “At one time Mark had a really venomous tongue that you didn’t want to get caught on the wrong side of. He’s still a professional illustrator, I think; he’s in magazines like Spin, Vibe, Details, but I think he always just really wanted to be a painter. And, admirably, he chooses the most difficult techniques and style to prove himself. Those perspectives of the female figures are really difficult to do. And the satire is still there.”

In the painting “We All Have It Coming, Kid” an African-American woman is painted as if she floats above us against an orb of magnificently rendered Renaissance sky. The woman holds herself aloft casually with clinched thighs on the red sash as her free hand cuts the red rope that holds her. The title probably references some famous line from a movie or novel, but here it is a surreal and strange suicide message.

This is an enigmatic image (as the whole exhibition really is) that puts Dancey in a different league than, as he put it, the “insincere, sarcastic, ironic, irreverent emptiness” of pop satire that he was formerly so deeply engaged with. Now, because of the classical backdrop and painting techniques, Dancey is in the realm of allegory where his audience has to deal with complicated images and also with the history of painting and its iconography. He’s left the new brow/lowbrow and made himself vulnerable to the critical assessment of the gallery and museum scene.

“I didn’t prepare myself for the kind of work I find myself doing,” he said when talking about his new style of painting. “Craft really matters to me, and I’ve had to learn a lot of techniques on my own. I have a Romanian friend, Baka, who was trained in classical European painting tradition and he works with me. I study how-to books, and I go to the museum and look at the Flemish masterpieces. I’m working to make something of real and sincere value that respects and is a part of the tradition of painting.” Dancey is clearly a driven man and his autodidactic accomplishments as a painter are impressive.

Dancey’s new project is the complete package. The lofty style of the hybridized paintings is carried over into the craft of the round frames constructed by a local artisan. The flames surrounding the visionary “Valentina Tereskkova, The First Nude in Space” are reminiscent of the illuminations of William Blake, the great British poet and painter. In “In The Last Ditch,” the soldier’s point of view looking up from a World War II foxhole at a lovely red-haired Irish nude with war planes flying over, while a strange analysis of gender, is brilliantly conceived and executed.

But, finally, are Dancey’s startling new paintings, like a lot of pop art, one-liners? Are they alluringly composed — sexy, hip, provocative — iconoclastically meant to tear down the walls of elitist art mumbo jumbo, yet unable to sustain our interest by engaging the cultural landscape they are trying to inhabit? Are they paintings all dressed up in classy gear, but still with bad manners, trying to come to the dinner party with the really good wine and the nuanced dialogue meant for only those who understand? Dancey is a smart artist who quickly changed the name of the game he is playing. Now the question remains whether he will play by the rules of elitist, avant art or maybe (hopefully) change those also.

Flying Circus: The Graphic Energy and Inspired Illuminations of Mark Dancey shows through Dec. 30 at CPOP Gallery (4160 Woodward, Detroit). Call 313-833-9901.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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