Dave McDermott’s new show “The Idiot,” at the Brennan and Griffin gallery in Red Hook, is striking before you even fully register what it is. When various motifs do eventually merge into something like an understandable message, it becomes clear that McDermott has created a memorable social satire, one that is both funny and upsetting.
A wide variety of semi-figurative images makes up the show. In “The End,” an odd, chess-piece figure stares dejectedly at the ground. “The Hallucination” shows a ghost, painted the most disturbing shade of green, sticking his horrible, half-pink, half-white tongue out. In “The Exasperation” a man blows his nose, with each drop of mucus shown flying in the air. Perhaps the creepiest of all is “The Fantasy,” in which a crude, golden monster with excited eyes and a wide, toothy grin looks back at the audience.
These paintings all benefit from their largeness, which makes their scariness imposing and aggressive. In each one, the facial expression, particularly the eyes, are most important. McDermott makes them convey misery, horror, treachery and indifference in a way that is very much in line with portraiture. Here, McDermott seems to be influenced by both Picasso and Francis Bacon. Both had a love of distorting figures to show their true feelings. His most extreme depictions of misery have some of the intensity of Robert Crumb drawings.
Other paintings are abstract except for a few recurring symbols, which only make sense in the context of the entire exhibit. Hands are a constant feature of the exhibit, pointing in an accusatory way. So are breasts, always either stared or pointed at. Most puzzling is the profile of a woman with grey hair, who appears several times, perhaps as a callback to a simpler time in art.
Each of these paintings consists of figures separated by a great deal of black space, which is created with yarn. This is very clever, as it puts the actual paintings in the background, creating a sense of depth as well as heightening the darkness of the subject matter. Most of the paintings also have a series of lightly colored squares, whose prettiness and order contrast well with the figures’ creepiness.
The key to the exhibit’s meaning is in the inspiration, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” The novel is about an innocent person who experiences all of the horrors of the city. He is driven to misery by the gap between the world around him and his own cheerfulness. This sense of the world as dangerous and untrustworthy is present in each of McDermott’s paintings. But, as in Dostoevsky, there is also a sense of detached humor. His figures are so miserable and creepy that they cannot be taken seriously.
“Dave McDermott: The Idiot” is on display through May 22, 2016.
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