Danville Chadbourne must have been hot shit in the ’80s. A sensualist and a perfectionist of formal abstraction, he’s also amazingly prolific: 1,400 documented works in 29 years, by his own count. Blue Star’s large main gallery is currently very full with part one of a retrospective: paintings, sculpture, and ceramics, all in the artist’s signature earthy pigments and organic forms, all created between 1980 and 2009. The cave paintings at Lascaux probably once glowed in these bright reds, ochres, blues, and greens.
Chadbourne’s work — all of it — evokes a state of nondenominational, primitive spirituality. It’s very male (a veritable garden of dicks awaits you; one sculpture, two sausages on a pedestal separated by a big rod, is titled “The Endless Cycle of Unfulfilled Desire”) and very consistent. I like to imagine the Texas native’s very yang sculptures closer in time to Henry Moore’s anthropomorphic yin lozenges.
The effect of Chadbourne’s work all together in one big room is like trance-dance music, freeing you from more complicated thoughts so you can meditate on its surfaces: form, color, texture, symbols. On the paintings, crosses, diamonds, and squares are bisected and pierced. Surfaces are abraded like old stucco walls to reveal complementary colors underneath. Bones and beads are bound and afixed like totems. Chadbourne’s sculptures are formed from stones polished and stacked like Easter Island relics, and branches that are polished and tipped like ancient fertility idols. His ceramic pieces look like fossils recovered from the earth and painstakingly pieced back together.
Chadbourne repeats himself so reliably that the show is a lexicon: bones, divining rods, beadwork, knobs. Spend enough time compiling the Danville Rosetta Stone, and you could decode it. But living languages evolve. Chadbourne guards his work against the encroachment of art slang with more zealousness than the OED. In his artist statement for the show’s catalog, he describes the remarkable homogenity of three decades’ work this way: “Over time, this has resulted in a large and complex family of objects that are very diverse but have an evident kinship.” And like some clans, Chadbourne’s kin rejects outsiders. “Although I am very aware of the world around me,” he writes by way of explanation, “my aesthetic interests are not in the topical issues of the moment or the current trends in the art world, but the primal or universal.”
It’s true. This show is a reassuring time capsule for the artists and art lovers for whom conceptual, performance, machine-made, found art, and video were betrayals of America’s hard-won post World War II supremacy.
But is it true that, as he adds, “The elemental nature of my concerns and forms are always relevant … ”? Chadbourne has not assimilated “the world around `him`” and made it into something his own or created a brilliant rejoinder; he’s simply ignored it, making his work the willful equivalent of one of those apocryphal lost equatorial tribes who are still hunting dinner with blow darts and marrying their first cousins: a fascinating curiosity, but not part of the contemporary conversation in any meaningful way.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the work were evolving on its own, but the most recent pieces in this show are actually the least compelling. They’re still beautifully made, but they’re almost strictly decorative. A totem pole dated 2007-09 (“The Insatiable Presence of the Winds of Temptation”) is a rectangular base topped by a graduated pillar topped by a two-pronged curving blob, in warm reds and oranges. It doesn’t read as contemporary art, which gets to the crux of this show’s dilemma: Chadbourne doesn’t want to be a contemporary artist, but he has no choice if he wants to be an artist who continues to matter. In a painting from 2008-09, an orange elbow floats against a typical textured background rendered in red, white, and green stripes that are reminiscent of Sean Scully, but without Scully’s primal roughness or his willingness to be ugly in the service of inspiration. It would make a pretty cool rugby shirt. The irony is that Chadbourne is an artist who has devoted himself to hand and craft while the Wiess Laws and Menils of the world kindled a lasting affair with the Warhols and Judds, yet his latest work looks like it could stock IKEA’s home-décor department.
… except for the titles, which are fun when they’re not overbearing. “The Continuous Dilemma of Obligation and Desire” (1992-94) is another giant phallus, sprouting errant little wankers in every direction. “The Great Enigma of Unconscious Decisions” from 1984-89 is, under the circumstances, poignant. It doesn’t need its long name to suggest that scientific breakthroughs notwithstanding, human nature will remain a mystery: four lightly carved and shaped sticks lean against the wall, divining rods and chromosome fragments, each only a partial clue to how we might develop in response to nature and nurture as we go through life.
Which reminds me: We’re talking about a living artist here. Chadbourne could be hot shit again. It’s rare to see the dedication and perseverence that’s evident in his work. I’d just like to see him get out and embrace the contemporary art world, too, even if it’s just long enough to provoke a real reaction. Maybe that’s Part II.
Danville Chadbourne Retrospective Part I: Artist’s Collection 1980-2009
Through Jun 14 Blue Star Contemporary Art Center (210) 227-6960 bluestarart.org