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Stepping into Re:View Contemporary Gallery, a relatively new and appropriately modern space on Willis Street in Detroit's time-honored Cass Corridor, we were met with works in provocative portholes set high up on the walls. It was unclear whether we were peering up into the clouds or up at the sea — where the sun waits just above the stormy break — but there's no mistaking that we were being forced to look up into the paintings and subjects higher still. Our eyes were transfixed upon sultry and suggestive bodies and limbs of women floating in the gray-blue void.
Though the disorienting angles and colors (at least in the gallery's first room) led us to believe that artist Mark Dancey had us drowning beneath a gang of sea nymphs, a little research tells us the exhibition's title, Volandismo, suggests otherwise. What was a long-forgotten Spanish scientific theology based on flying beings is Dancey's inspiration for his latest collection: a 14-piece (10 of which have never been exhibited) oil-on-board meditation that sexily and tastefully blends myth and dream in strange, aerial scenes.
In a painting to our right, a woman draped in a sheer black cloak (one of a couple with exceptionally large feet) floats on her back, one hand resting behind her head while the other holds out a small red sack she considers from the corners of her eyes. Behind her, a storm cloud. It's the image the gallery has been using in promotional material, but those three-color cartoon reproductions do no justice to the original. To witness Dancey's lacquered oil work up close for the first time, especially with an image we were at least loosely familiar with, was to realize just how technically sound yet imaginative this artist's "finer" work has become. "This show offers a great view into the path of one of Detroit's most significant artists on his way to becoming one of its most significant painters," says Re:View Contemporary owner and director Simone DeSousa, and we have to agree.
For an artist who cut his teeth in illustrative pop art, graphic design and rock 'n' roll in the '80s and '90s (check out the satirical Motorbooty mag and his old band Big Chief), Dancey's only been working with oil paints in this serious fashion since the late '90s. His latest work shows a masterful technique, one that suggests El Greco and later Spanish painters such as Jose Antolinez, whose cherubim and angels Dancey replaces with modern, acrobatic temptresses (save for the one slightly demonic woman guarding a bedpost). It's altogether quite accessible yet packed with intrigue; professionally executed, yet playfully so.
Asked whether or not she believes Volandismo portrays a pop aesthetic, DeSousa says "there's still a cultural pop twist in Dancey's work, and there might always be one. He's pushed himself very far, and when you've gone way beyond whatever it is you were working on, it becomes something else." It is not distinctly pop art, but these paintings aren't an "anti-pop" reaction either. Instead, they're a much-welcomed submission into the canon of a notable artist whose work we're assuming may very well continue to morph, reaching further into realms of fine art.
DeSousa, who has watched Dancey since 2003, when the first pieces here were produced for a C-Pop show, sees him undergoing a "great transformative process."
It's with this notion one can stroll around Re:View (at least until the end of July) and track an artist through periods of trial, error, success and eventual growth. But that's not to say you won't find cohesion here. Outside of the two pieces in the collection that feel out of place or half-thought-out — one of which is starkly subpar and almost hidden in the gallery while the other was the first sold during the opening — the group experience provides a loose narrative, making for a rewalkable, rethinkable exhibit. A floating house, a padlocked lip, red Cirque du Soleil-style drapes tied around the arms of playful vixens swinging through the air — we weren't at a loss for symbols to tie together.
It wasn't long before we recognized what an opportunity it was to consider all the paintings by just one artist before us, as group shows — enjoyable in their own way — are becoming increasingly common. But as we saw with the Andy Kem exhibit in February, Re:View continues to show off mainly established, mostly local artists with large shows in the hope to, as DeSousa says, "fully showcase an artist's language." The gallery doesn't cater to any specific medium, but instead focuses on maintaining a distinctive level of quality. We started thinking about what a shame it would've been if this specific exhibition were somewhere in New York, while a couple of B-level pieces hung on a local wall surrounded by disjointed neighbors.
Near the end of the opening night, Dancey and Glenn Barr, another of Detroit's most celebrated painters, looked out onto one of Volandismo's more talked-about pieces, a large painting titled "Between the Wish and the World (aka. Dreams are Free, Motherfucker)." As they spoke, people congregated behind them. A far-away left leg hangs from the top of the frame, the right foot tucked into the crease under the knee. At the bottom, close up, a hand reaches up to grab the foot. This is more of Dancey's world filtered through dream and mythology, of course. But we saw something else — something Barr saw too.
"That leg — that kinda looks like a man's leg," Barr says, looking down at Dancey's calf, hidden under a pair of sharp suit pants. Everyone follows Barr's eyes, judging for themselves, to themselves.
Seems Dancey's learned a lot since the days he was designing cover art for Soundgarden CDs and the like. One lesson is on display in that beautiful oil work: Sometimes just a bit of ambiguity goes a long way.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.