Just Looking
Dawn Clements at Pierogi and Feigen Contemporary; Uri Blayer at Tatischeff

The manic ball-point and ink drawings of Dawn Clements are showing concurrently in two different galleries, one in Williamsburg, the other in Chelsea. The collaboration signals a run for the Hot Artist list.


Contrivance trumps drawing in Ms. Clements’ process. Work on the wall in Williamsburg is less interesting than work reproduced in Pierogi’s catalog: domestic interiors that grow by accretion, like Hockney’s photomontages. These pieces are not in the current exhibition. “Dijon” (2003), a panoramic string of doors, hints at them but much else on view is a thin, occasionally decorative, version of Zap Comics’ rambling, hallucinogenic style with none of R. Crumb’s inventiveness or bite.

It’s a bad sign when artists begin by talking about what they read instead of what they look at. Ms. Clements’ credits the density of her drawings to her wide reading in semiotics and Roland Barthes. (Cognoconsumers melt at the reference.) Wide looking would have been better.

Rumply out-sized drawings—a room in a tacky summer rental; a cluttered table top—accumulate detail in a dogged, magpie way that adds up to the expressive texture of an unmade bed. The rest is head-shop stuff for customers of attitude. Incoherent patterns made of doodles or whatever catches the artist’s attention are covered obsessively with scratchy lists of names and post-acid utterances. Culled from daytime soaps, Ms. Clements’ scribbled texts play to the cheap seats:

chump / schlub / sucker
Do it! Do it! I’ve got it coming!
Probably homosexual panic; I’ve seen it before.
Do you dream in chocolate?
Fy-er Rumsfeld, War Criminal!
I’m your fy-ah, your dih-sigh-ah

It’s all too cool, too careless—like a hostess who flings Granola Bars, still in their wrappers, onto the table for dessert.

In Chelsea, Feigen Contemporary features a 46-foot ink drawing “Travels with Myra Hudson,” depicting the various interiors that Joan Crawford, as Myra Hudson, inhabited in the 1952 film noir “Sudden Fear.” It is an entertaining tour-de-force: movie memorabilia in gallery format. But you need to know the movie to find interest in the panorama apart from the consumed-on-the-premises spectacle. (How else would you recognize the significance of a Dictaphone?)

All the cat-and-mouse tension and psychological thrill of the plot is absent. What’s left is a one-dimensional storyboard that relies on stills from the camera work of Charles Lang, Jr. Film buffs might wonder if Ms. Clements is just cashing in on Lang’s cinematic genius. His legacy in black and white translates handily into monochrome drawing. Beginning in 1932 with “A Farewell to Arms,” until his retirement, Lang was a frequent Oscar winner. His striking cinematography in “Sudden Fear” earned a nomination. Somewhere in Ms. Clements’ relentless notations his name really ought to appear.

The omission brings us back to Barthes. Semiotics teaches us that things we take for granted signify a hidden set of unrecognized power relations. An exhibition is a good example of a Barthian signifier: it obscures the gearwheel of promotion that dominates audience perception, permitting routine visual fodder to pass as something meaningful.


Uri Blayer’s earliest paintings were made during a stint in the Israeli army. From 1990 to 1996, he worked in a remote part of the Negev Desert, wresting subtle beauty out of the boundless loneliness of rock and sand. Afterward, he came to New York to study under Lennart Anderson at Brooklyn College for a year, traveling in the summer and painting the Western deserts. Today, he lives and works in Maui. This show, Mr. Blayer’s second at Tatistcheff, is a record of his responses to a very different kind of landscape.

I love those desert paintings. Empty of vegetation or easily apprehended contrasts of tone and color, desolation challenged the artist’s perceptions. He had to exert himself to distinguish between closely related tones; and the exertion brought discoveries that held the eye, always inviting a fresh look.

Painting conditions are different in Hawaii and they have altered his work. This exhibition is mixed. Part of it echoes the achievement of his desert years and part capitulates to the picture postcard. In the barrens he had to search for color; in the semi-tropics he has to control color. He seems to be surrendering to it instead.

That ever-present candied yellow green might well be true to the local landscape; but it looks false on canvas. And he is developing a heavy hand with the palette knife, troweling on the paint where a brush would better enliven a clotted surface. Still in his early thirties, Mr. Blayer is too young—and too good—to settle for the lure of popular effects.

For me, the loveliest and most convincing paintings here are the unselfconscious views of Maui shorelines; the smaller, subdued landscapes like “Turtle Bay, Sunset” (2004) and the abandoned sugar mill that he has been painting for several years. “Paia Mill Roofs” (2002) is a dramatic series of diagonals constructed of shed roofs, ducting, various pipes and beams. Colors of rusted metal—siennas and orange ochres—and the shadowed interstices between them are punctuated by a yellow railing, pitched perfectly in tone, and set off by a cool stretch of blue-grey tin.

“Paia Mill Equipment” (2003) captures the expressive potential of two bent pipes on a wooden industrial palette. They appear again, minor players, in “Geometrics” (2003), a large painting characteristic of his ability to turn detritus into satisfying still lifes. He is at his best when he is looking at the overlooked.


“Uri Blayer: Hawaii” at Tatistcheff Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 212-627-4547),

“Dawn Clements” at Pierogi (177 North 9th Street, Brooklyn, 718-599-2144).

“Dawn Clements” at Feigen Contemporary until December 18 (535 West 20th Street, 212-929-0500).

These reviews were first published in The New York Sun, December 16, 2004.

Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey

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