Verne Dawson has been out walking. He has been walking in the past and the future. He has seen Manhattan long before and after it became the heart of New York. He has seen ancient rites and the birth of myths and folklore. He has seen what will become of us, and he has seen all this against the intricate shifts of deep time mapped out in the stars.
This scenario should be quite ridiculous of course. People don’t travel in time apart from in science fiction. Verne Dawson confesses to being “woefully under-read” in this form of literature which should make it doubly ridiculous to imagine the American painter as even a metaphoric time-traveller. But despite this implausibility, Dawson does travel in time. For years now he has immersed himself in mathematics and astronomy and has succeeded, within the last decade, in opening a number of ‘portals’ into the past and the future. The nature of these portals tends to be fixed, both in space and time. They are not doors through which he or we can physically pass. Nor are they windows through which we can see a changing vista and perhaps be seen by the people who may inhabit that vista. They are instead fixed in time and space like a painting. And perhaps due to their passage through space-time the images they give us are less than perfect compared to the high-definition photographic yardstick against which we habitually judge the visual. They are somewhat soft and blurry. What should be solid has a certain liquidity. Grass and snow run like icing over the darker substance of the land. Dawson’s pictures are visions of peculiar lands in far-off times, yet their effect is no less significant for this: looking into them we are struck by how all this difference seems peculiarly familiar.
This is not a coincidence. Dawson’s portals work on a specific principle: he paints the similarities that run through human culture, more than the differences, by drawing on a continually expanding body of literature drawn from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and astronomy and from the studies of myth, religion and folklore. These disciplines describe the continuities evident in more than 30,000 years of human culture, primarily underpinned by early man’s evolving and subsequently highly sophisticated understanding of astronomy.
The Cycle of quarter-day observances, circa 23800 b.c., a series of four paintings corresponding to the seasons, is particularly significant in Dawson’s oeuvre, and he has painted the subject a number of times. Set during a period when the earth’s axis was at exactly the same degree of tilt as it is today, the Cycle is in some ways — astronomically and culturally — simultaneously then and now. Based on rites enacted to celebrate equinoxes and solstices, the ritual celebrations that populate the paintings are peppered with iconography of differing degrees of familiarity. Most strikingly in the winter scene entitled When Santa was a Shaman, Dawson has transposed a familiar greeting card Santa Claus, complete with red and white outfit and fluffy white beard, into the middle of a pagan rite. But when we examine the painting in more detail, it becomes clear that there is no rupture in the depicted scene. The red and white of Santa’s outfit mirrors the decoration on the pole around which the assembled figures dance. And his hat is surmounted prominently with reindeer antlers. The painting lifts its title directly from the name of the book by Tony Van Renterghem which examines the ancient origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, and refers to Nordic myths of shamans who wore reindeer antlers to imbue themselves with the prowess of the animal, and red and white clothes to make reference to the colours of hallucinogenic fungi. When we see the familiar in the painting we are not seeing the present relocated to the past. We are seeing reflections of the ancient past in the present.
But what are we to make of all this continuity? And how are we to set it against the fluctuations in and eccentricities of style that drift through Dawson’s body of work? His more recent paintings of trapeze artists, or as Dawson terms them, Aerialists, are predominantly painted in a style that seems to owe a debt to the perfect arrest of the photograph. They seem to bear little relationship to the narrative composition or offbeat charm of the Cycle of quarter-day observances. But first impressions can be deceiving. The breadth of Dawson’s subjects — from the tools of painting to the planets, calendars to futuristic communities — and his tendency to vary his style can seem confusing, but beneath most of his paintings is a concern with the way mankind has marked time throughout its history. Beneath a surface of time and culture that can seem infinitely varied there are patterns that continue. Our culture is still predicated on astronomical relationships even if we don’t know it. We still make images as we always have although we sometimes forget the continuity between our oldest and newest ones. Dawson’s painting is a physical embodiment of this connection. Its appearance changes but patterns reside below the surface. Sometimes they are clearly discernible, sometimes they are teased out by association. In Solstice Procession in the Magdalenian Era we find an acrobat balancing on his hands on the back of a bull whilst a massive lion parades amongst the assembled people. The combination of human and animal performers is reminiscent of one form of contemporary entertainment — the circus. In paintings such as Circus, 2001, Dawson depicts an open-air circus in which every performer corresponds to an ancient personification of astronomy found in the Zodiac. Similarly, in their stylised ballet with the heavens, Dawson’s Aerialists freeze images of the age-old daring of the acrobat, found as early as in the Minoan era, against the contemporary backdrop of the circus big top.
Verne Dawson’s paintings are hopeful things. They suggest there are other possibilities that coexist with the apocalypses we busy ourselves with making. They tell us there can be continuity; patterns between culture and nature if we care to maintain them. But they also wryly suggest that in some ways it won’t really matter if we don’t. Time and the stars will still continue their procession even if we are too busy to notice the lessons a 30,000 year-old culture might have to tell us about our relationship to the past in the making of our futures. It will be our loss, after all. Time will still travel, we just won’t be here to see it.
Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission through Myth Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha Von Dechend. David R Godine, 1977 ISBN 0879232153
Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes Everyman’s Library, 1993 ISBN 1857159217
When Santa Was a Shaman: Ancient Origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas Tree, by Tony Van Renterghem. Llewellyn 1996, ISBN 156718765X
Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama. Fontana Press, 2004 ISBN 0006863485
The Roots of Civilization: Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art Symbol and Notation Alexander Marshack, Moyer Bell, 1991 ISBN 1559210419
The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade. Harcourt Australia, 1968 ISBN 015679201X
Signposts in a Strange Land: The Collected Essays, Walker Percy. Bellew Publishing Co 1991, ISBN 0947792899
‘Whether here the Heaven’s two Halves are joined,
But oddly closed, still leave a seam behind’ Manilius, Astronomica, first century AD
Verne Dawson (b. Meridianville, Alabama in 1961) is based in rural Pennsylvania. A painter of landscapes, portraits, histories and still-lifes, his references range from prehistoric cave paintings to mythology, folklore to astronomy. Underlying his work is an interest in the mythological roots of civilization, particularly in relation to the measurement and understanding of the concept of time. Dawson studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and briefly opened a portrait studio, before turning to historical subjects in his paintings. Since the mid-1990s he has had numerous solo exhibitions, including Gavin Brown’s enterprise (1995/1997/1999/2001/2004); Kunsthalle Zürich (2002); Victoria Miro Gallery, London (2003) and Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2004). Selected group shows include: ‘From the Observatory’, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York (2002); ‘Urgent Painting’, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2002); ‘Works on Paper from Acconci to Zittel’, Victoria Miro Gallery, London (2001); ‘There is no Spirit in Painting’, le Consortium, Dijon (2000).
Verne Dawson is represented by Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich.
Simon Morrissey is a curator and writer on contemporary art.
Supported by Embassy of the United States of America.