Dawn Clements, who died on December 4th at the age of 60 after a two-year battle with cancer, left behind a magnificent body of work, and alas, ambitious plans that will never be realized. She was as single-minded about drawing as any artist has ever been, and as open minded. A small sumi ink rendering of a wingback chair begun during a residency at Middlebury College grew, by added sheets of paper, into an immense panorama thirty-seven feet long, the size needed to portray her entire surroundings at the same intimate level of detail. In one way or another, she was always drawing her world, from the optical scatter of diamonds to the blunt signage of paper laundry tickets. (Clements liked to point out that jewels and scraps of printed matter had equal value as drawings.) She came to embrace a self-sufficient tautology which all artists understand in their own way, but few with such clarity of purpose. As she put it in a 2007 interview with her gallerist Susan Swenson: “Where I live is my studio and the subject of my work is where I live.”
One day she took a small black and white television into the studio in order not to miss a Douglas Sirk melodrama. She was struck by bits of dialogue and jotted them down on a convenient surface. “All of a sudden,” as she said in the same interview, “the still life seemed to become animated.” It was the beginning of marking her drawings with the wordage of passing time –– thoughts, lists, things overheard, things read. It was also the opening of a window in her studio, a small black and white one, onto fictional dimensions, perpendicular axes awaiting exploration. Soon she was not only writing down dialogue but drawing directly from her television.
Clements studied the semiotics of film as an undergraduate, and she had a sophisticated critical appreciation of the medium, but it was soap operas and weepy “women’s films” that came to occupy her as an artist, culminating in major works such as Travels with Myra Hudson (2004; Saatchi Collection), and Mrs. Jessica Drummond’s (‘My Reputation,’ 1946) (2010). The first is a meditation on a Joan Crawford vehicle with noir overtones, and the second derives from a Barbara Stanwyck society drama as polished as a toaster. Both feature strong, independent women looking for love but trapped in their blandly tasteful décor, their gilded cages. It was these Hollywood studio interiors that intrigued Clements more than the narratives, per se, or the films’ inscrutable, photogenic stars. In her own “studio” she forensically reverse-engineered the sets with as much clarity as she could, via flickering low-resolution video frames, and having to guess at background details that might be in shadow or out of focus. Pausing the playback, Clements found frames where ashtrays and bedspreads, wallpaper and perfume bottles emerged from behind the actors, or were revealed by a new camera angle (often noting the video timecode and dialogue on the drawings). The erasure, for the most part, of the actors as the space they left behind was liquidly unfolded and deciphered, induced a psychologically potent side effect. Their absence allows the viewer to enter archetypal precincts, where scenarios of love, loss and heroic sacrifice are enacted forever.
In Myra Hudson, Clements made her most explicit mapping of film, by representing — right to left — a fateful train journey from New York to San Francisco. A view out one compartment window shows the plains in daylight, while the next window jumps ahead to a reflection of the train interior at night. The panorama passes through ambiguous outlines in dreamy blank spaces to lead us smoothly into Myra’s San Francisco mansion, up an ominous staircase, and into the heroine’s study, where cruelly ironic scenes will unfold. This is as close to storyboarding the spacetime of film as Clements got. On the whole, she expanded her film panoramas purely by spatial contiguity –– Jessica Drummond’s bedroom being attached to her bathroom, and so on –– just as she did with drawings of her immediate surroundings, one piece of paper folding under, a new one gluing on until the drawing came to rest. When it would be fully opened for the first time, the joints and folds in the paper would remain prominent.
The TV in Clements’s studio was her portal from domestic still life into ancient mythopoeic saga, which is fair enough, since such stories are a part of life, and always have been –– as real as a turnip on a kitchen table. One comes to realize that reality and fiction flip everywhere in Clements work. Her drawings of film spaces are also, of course, analytic renderings of actual sets and props. As for the artist’s encyclopedic drawings of her immediate surroundings, they trade on the traditional fictions of still life in the way that disjunctive local spaces and times are fused under a continuous skin of illusion. Kitchen and Bathroom, for example (2004; collection Whitney Museum of American Art), is a monumental chronicle in sumi ink of her Brooklyn railroad apartment at gritty, Ivan-Albright resolution. It is a flash-lit snapshot that surely took months. The drawing’s fantastic continuum of cramp and clutter serves as a kind of doppelganger to the palatial bedrooms of Jessica Drummond or Myra Hudson. And from a certain point of view, Kitchen and Bathroom is no less cinematic –– one can easily imagine the drawing as a panning background for cel animation, with characters jumping from chair to stove to bathtub as the camera tracks along.
Clements’s panoramic formats, often wrapping around the walls of exhibitions, would have been enough to merit video-chronicler James Kalm’s description of her work as “expanded drawing.” Kalm, however, was also calling attention to the great variety of formats that Clements embarked on a without missing a beat, from vertical “tiltoramas” (as she called them), which travel from her foot to the ceiling and down the other wall; to a Dürer-like study of a single patch of weedy lawn, drawn every day for a month; to a multi-year collaboration with sculptor Marc Leuthold in which she drew a grouping of his sculptures that had been closely modeled, in turn, on her drawings. In every case, she was just drawing what she saw.
Yet it was still life drawings–– very much in the tradition of that genre, for all their irregularly-shaped, rumpled, and annotated eccentricities–– that increasingly came to occupy Clements in the last years of her life. These watercolor masterpieces feature over-life-size fruit, vegetables, and bunches of flowers, maximal challenges for the artists’ ever-sharpening ability to see and describe. With the introduction of color around 2005 –– returning to her roots in painting, though not without misgivings –– Clements had expanded again. Using careful layers of translucent watercolor, she could now capture the waxy glistening of apples, melons and plums. She could enumerate the chromatic foldings of tulips, peonies, hyacinths and chrysanthemums, and solve the crinklings of their green leaves, the knobby fibers of their intertwining stalks, and their reflections and refractions through curved glass vases full of water.
As with Van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises, Clements’s floral still lifes are demonstrations of an ardent kind of mastery that conventional skill can’t touch. Leo Steinberg, in his 1953 essay The Eye is a part of the Mind, was reminding an avant-garde that had little use for representation about the ways in which fresh looking could fire neurons. Taking the exuberant early Renaissance anatomies of Pollaiolo as an example, Steinberg wrote: “Like all works connected with discoveries of representation, his pictures lack the sweet ease of accomplishment. His images are ever aborning, swelling into space and taking life, like frozen fingers tingling as they warm. It is not facts they purvey; it is the thrill and wonder of cognition.” If both Clements’s and Van Gogh’s flower paintings rise miles above easy sentiments normally attaching to the subject, it’s because one thrills and wonders along with the artists in their rapture of discovery.
Many of Clements’s last works, with and without flowers, also depict the colorful packaging of cancer medications. Just another laundry ticket, as it were. And just another vanitas –– one warning among many about the bittersweetness of passing time. Vanitas, indeed, was in her method. In Peonies (2014), a supremely gorgeous work, Clements replaced, as she often did, an area of the drawing with a fresh piece of paper. In the process, she sliced off the side of a lush red blossom (probably what had displeased her). When she resumed the drawing, apparently the blossom had wilted, falling forward a bit, and there she drew it, leaving the hard edge of the blossom’s previous incarnation behind, embedded in the daily fabric of her practice. This memento mori is echoed in the lower right by the ripe young face of thirties star Sylvia Sidney –– a drawing of a drawing, it seems, which was pinned to the studio wall behind the flowers. Clements told Eve Aschheim in a 2007 interview in the Brooklyn Rail that she was planning to bring figures back into the work, and in Peonies she left us with a transfixing hint about where things might have gone.
In writing this tribute to Dawn’s work, I watched a few of the melodramas lyrically transfigured in her drawings. One thing that struck me in the films was the consummate tact of dialogue and behavior, even during emotional eruptions. Perhaps social relations really were more formal, more beautiful then. John Yau, with exactitude, described the works in Dawn’s final show at Pierogi as “love letters to the world.” (The full review on Hyperallergic is mandatory reading.) Yes, love letters, and –– I hope I may add –– disciplined and gracious ones, as if written by the radiant heroines in the films she loved.print