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John Dean: Tuesday in New York

January 26, 2016
Soho NYC VIII 2015 ed8 34x22.5 web

John Dean, “Soho, NYC VIII” 2015, photograph, ed. 8, 34×22.5 in.

As part of Alberta’s Exposure Photography Festival, we’ll be hosting an opening for John Dean’s exhibition, Tuesday in New York, this Saturday, January 30, 1-4PM.

Very much to our excitement, celebrated artist, Derek Michael Besant R.C.A., penned his acclamation for Dean’s latest body of work and was kind enough to let us share it here:

John Dean’s photography continues to evolve over the four decades since he was a Photographer working at The Glenbow Museum towards its grand opening of the present building in downtown Calgary.  And I am still caught by one of his images that goes back in time of a black + white shot of thick bladed grasses growing in a slough, where it was at once a familiar identifiable subject, but simultaneously contained his interests of abstraction in equal parts.

That image might well be a guide to looking at bodies of his latest photography practice.  But to also give a context I would recount his exhibition at Master’s Gallery titled Sunday in Venice two years ago.  In this work, Dean gave himself a timeline to travel away from his busy commercial photography business, to wander the canals of the sinking city.  Armed with his cameras and a lust for searching out the facades and back alleys of the lesser known side of the romantic city, he concentrated on side streets as a kind of essay in stark geometry and saturated colour.  Yellows against blues.  Greens behind orange.  Crimson beside black. Instead of a touristic display of what the name of the city registers in our minds, he brought us to appreciate the textural surfaces of what the city is composed of.  Windows, doors, trims, sidewalks, and rooftops became linear components of architectural delight in how we assemble the notion of any city as a psychological map in our minds.  Following daylight as his guide, illuminated building fronts gave way to shadowed cross-cuts that bisected the construct of the image into a complex itinerary of space and time.  The historical aspect was enlivened anew to encompass one’s awareness of light falling on shallow relief.  The canals that are the main transit routes and cliché images of beauty play a secondary role in Dean’s photography.  His eye wanders the boundaries of depth of field, into how the surfaces of the actual facades operate with their enduring coats of paint to become painterly demarcations in their own right.
The Venice images are frontal, but often give perspective the benefit of the doubt to lead one’s eye into the space.  Geometric treatments of how shutters, window sills, door trims and stone steps become an arrangement of blocks of colour or texture assemble into images that reflect Mondrian and Modernist exercises of formal placement.  If a comparison to Mondrian’s linear focus is one path followed by Dean to Venice, an excursion to New York City might be situated closer to Schwitters, as far as breaking the confines of geometry into splinters.
Tuesday In New York is a second chapter into Dean’s search for subject matter that floats between absolute realism and the fringes of abstraction at the same exacting moment.  An analysis of fire escapes is the theme for this series, where Dean again gives definition to foreground and background in a compression of details and texture that assemble into these facades and divide themselves into repetitions.
I am also reminded of M. C. Escher’s sense of play in his own architectural puzzles of where stairs might lead.  Whereas Dean composes the picture plane into a limited set of motifs that include metal staircases and their partnered shadows, allowing us the pleasure of the gaze to find the barest evidence reminding us that these are dwellings where people live in a major city.  Reflections in windows also carry hints of a lamp turned on in the hidden interior.  A flat cookie-cutter window design from the early 1800’s supports a weight of roofline architectural detail in a plinth or arch.  Gothic iron gateways beckon a viewer into an alley that is uncomfortably compressed in scale.  These psychological moods are heightened by the scale of the photos themselves where one is able to peer into a scene and find a potted plant perched on a window sill, or a coat hung on a hook behind a door.  The evidence of humanity cloistered away in these ordered geometrics.
An unnerving absence of perspectives posits the viewer in an intimate location, as if drawn to the open curtain in a voyeuristic moment to peer inside the forbidden zone.  In the Chelsea district, this odd point of view comes from the redeveloped raised timbers that used to support train tracks, now made into an elevated public walkway garden attraction.  From this uncommon position, Dean is three storeys above the street, allowing the facades to be flattened out in dramatic but subtle alignments of our perceptions.  One’s perspective allows reading space as three dimensional, but Dean’s images confound our instincts to have the the picture surface release only shallow details that reveal their historical beginnings when architectural embellishment was a paramount element for the human soul, picked up again with Post-Modernism a century later.  The fire escapes are quiet skeletal reminders of the passage of time since New York’s Great Fire, and create an added patina to the density of time across these streets as Dean’s homage.
Tuesday in New York captures another everyday set of colour juxtapositions that are fainter than the Venice series, evoking an altogether other aesthetic that underlines how each city carries its own identity.  White, off-white, red brick, and white rails with black shadows.  A monochromatic sense of colour pervades Dean’s forgotten side streets, narrow alleys and grand apartment blocks from an era when life moved slower.  In a city we associate with hustle and bustle he has managed to find a quieter New York than we imagine.  An off-hour time of day that Edward Hopper’s paintings sought and found with hints at life going on behind half-closed doors, drawn curtains and out open windows onto balconies with fire escapes…
–  Derek Michael Besant RCA

 

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