Artmatism & Geometric Abstractions: Bill Dallas & John Whitehead at Joyce Gordon Gallery
Dallas’s work is visual meditation—a single color with contrasting line breaking across its horizon about noon. The artist says of an older work, “Point of Decision,” that the paint brushes mark the end of his two years living in his van when he lost his West Oakland studio. Tragedy seems to haunt Dallas’s sojourn, yet he is not bitter nor remorseful, each experience – even the loss of hundreds of pieces of work, a framed optimism we could all learn something from.
Point of Decision (17x72) is a large work, narrow where the companion work “In the Second Beginning” (48x60) is black concentric circles spinning out of a universal darkness. . . deep melatonin darkness. These two works are juxtaposed with Whitehead’s “Circles Within” and “Reflections in Geometric Space”. These stainless steel pieces are all reflections—if souls are easily separated from their corporal containers, then these geometric abstractions are posed for an easy capture. Enter cautiously.
For some reason, housing stability is not something this fine artist can count on. Dallas’s paintings are historic manuscripts which chronicle periods within context. Wild acrylic brush strokes fill “Journey to Oku” surface. Where “A Mountain Village in East Oakland” is characterized by measured even brush strokes, “Oku” indicates a freedom or spiritual abandon absent in the carefully crafted “Mountain Village.”
Japanese characters rain into a wet starburst or fall as a crashing wave of color. Dallas moves his color in large thick brush strokes finely articulated with a variety of artist tools. The patterns etched or scraped across canvases, twin surface textured brocade.
“Artmatism” is participatory. The Whitehead/Dallas query posits no answers, yet within this aesthetic space answers arise. There is a familiarity here as Dallas recycles old themes in new ways – his inscriptions or titles are mini sermons which place the “I” within a context. His work give us language, houses thought as wandering ideas fit together into and on top of diagrammed linear spaces.
The bright colors or enveloping darkness present in such as mixed media Dallas’s “Nakasaki Urakami” which has a crane floating in the top right corner of the canvas, a golden scroll etching affixed then painted on top of the black surface leaves space for greater visibility. Dallas’s cavases are both dense and open, full of activity and stark. A Dallas painting is an exercise in perspective. It’s moving yet, we can catch glimpses of the moments if we stand still long enough with our eyes open.
Mr. Whitehead’s steel pieces stand in opposition to Dallas’s work, as if the sculptures are how a Dallas piece might look if abstracted then rendered multidimensional. Whitehead renders the body, Dallas its soul, not that the transcendent fails to rest here too. Steel has a mystery which might not lend itself to motion, yet, Whitehead’s work moves—it turns as we turn, it grows in height—it expands to hold that which we are unable to grasp.
Dallas is a Kansas City, Missouri, native, Whitehead from Demerara, Guyana. Whitehead grew up in West Oakland, while Dallas lived many states away in Kansas City. Both men loved making art and were talented, yet neither pursued art seriously until much later in life.
Whitehead decided to begin sculpting once he was to retire from a tenured position at City College of San Francisco. The professor entered his first piece in an art composition and won he knew very soon he could get back to the place where the road parts and he took the fork to the left.
To understand the process of taking a concept or idea and making it visual, is to see a dialectic discourse actualized. And like most conversations, the art is a product of the fused dispositions – material or matter and man. In the back room we see a sculpted piece in wood. Precision marks all of Whitehead’s work. We see intention and great skill reflected in each of the seven sculptures. Once again, we are encouraged by the titles given to certain work, “Without Limits” features a multiple tiered cube with extensions like fingertips pointing outward, one arm looks to be sheathed in a sword. The base is a pyramid. Whitehead states he is influenced Fletcher Benton’s geometric abstractions and David Smith’s “Cubi” series. The artist says, “One of my evolving visions is to integrate the geometric abstract aspect of my work with a variety of contemporary and traditional African artistic paradigms.”
Half circles, full, spheres within spheres – his an accessible abstraction. Dallas color designs captured by Whitehead’s sculptures’ refracted light add a reflective tone to the combined work. It is a tonal dialectic.
Dallas who moved to Berkeley in 1963, graduating ten years later (1974) from UC Berkeley, with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in painting hadn’t a clue what the plan was. Though he was surrounded by Kansas City Blues, Dallas had no idea he would end up in Oakland, an artist. But here he is back in town, if only for a short time before he hits the road, not like Jack, rather like Oshosi the warrior. Waving his brush like a baton, his canvas the place where his orchestra performs, Dallas calls what some might see as abstraction, Artmatism. Kansas City blues and jazz form the soundtrack Dallas performs to. It is visible in the linear conversations crisscrossing the gallery—“Euclidian Park” waves to “St. John 15”; “Blue Rachel” and “King Pharaoh and His Powerful Army drowning in the Red Sea” wave to “Without Limits.” We see them hailing and waving at each other as the cacophony peaks when Whitehead’s sculptures shift their positions on the pedestals. Purposeful, imaginative and energetic even when distilled— Dallas’s work reflects a muse which lives in a place beyond the temporal. Perhaps the work dictates his path— whether this is a jaunt to Korea or Japan, back home to Kansas City or from Alameda to East Oakland.
Poverty has little aesthetic value, so Whitehead took parental advice and went into a career that would ensure his escape. In 1971 he graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Economics, followed by a Master’s Degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Economics. From there he went into academia 1990 to 2015.
Whitehead and Dallas’s “Artmatism & Geometric Abstractions” at Joyce Gordon Gallery show that dreams deferred can have life once we allow ourselves to wake up.