99 Flowers by Dianna Settles: Close Revelations
I recently realized that there is this quality of things that I’m attracted to, shared among (or which I impose onto) the art pieces I find most engaging. It’s this ability to elude classification--how Jane Freilicher’s paintings equally still life and landscape, or how Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract expressionism can be read as landscapes of the psyche, or how Hannah Adair’s prints sit in the Venn diagram intersection of abstraction, landscape, and figure, or how Katya Tepper’s dimensional monoliths straddle the classification of painting and mounted sculpture. To what extent the aspect that these particular works have been made by women has to do with their challenging of the structures of artistic classification, I can’t say; that all of these works have an attribute of tactile immediacy as well as a quality of pushing out into space does seem to have something to do with femininity.
Dianna Settles’s work is no exception. Her current show, 99 Flowers, recently had its Atlanta opening night at Hi-Lo Press, the printmaking studio/gallery which Dianna also operates. Prior to Atlanta, the collection was also shown at Versa in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her work, which reflects her mixed-Vietnamese background, features Asian women and other people of color in various states of neutral existence in intimate spaces, situated among botanicals, pottery, and the bold packaging of East Asian snacks. Settles has described her work as inspired by the work of contemporary Vietnamese artists in collapsing the space between Western and traditional Vietnamese art styles. Her work could also be described as collapsing the space between still life and portraiture, to the extent that it can often be read as still lifes of faces while simultaneously being read as a portraits of objects.
The primary figure in Sweet Ones (the piece in this particular show which my eye kept floating back to), for instance, is a large round urn, which is smattered with symbols of divine femininity and cutesy jokes. A woman gently touches the urn, out of which spills a plant with dangling red florets and big leaves (I wish I were enough of a botanist to properly identify it.) This woman is seen in three-quarters profile, styled in a pine green t-shirt and clear-frame glasses, standing behind and to the right of the urn. Her hand movements are mirrored in a yin-yang way by those of another woman, seated to the left of the urn, who drinks from a bold orange can of GRASS JELLY DRINK which she lifts to her lips.
The urn and the women are portrayed in a flattened plane of field, not unlike Eastern and pre-Renaissance sacred art--a likeness that is further reinforced by a mauve glow which surrounds the women and the urn, similar to the aureoles which surround the Bodhisattvas depicted by Situ Panchen. The urn receives the same aureole treatment as the women; it shares their human qualities, but is given a precedent divinity. The women wear the same stern expression, somewhere along the lines of skepticism, irritation, and malaise--not with each other or the urn, but perhaps toward the viewer of the painting. They seem as if they might say something (in retort, of course); they let the urn say what they hold back.
The urn, for its part, speaks through its symbols like a rush of thoughts that haven’t yet made it to phrasing: the triple moon of the maiden, mother, and crone for the seasons of life, hands forming an upward moving triangle for aspiration and fire, an anthropomorphized sun for renewal and accomplishment, a cat for spiritual instinct and darkness, a serpent for rebirth and sexual desire, and a cherry planet with an orbital ring for why the fuck not? A phrase on the urn, QUE FEMME VEUT, DIEU VEUT, which translates to what woman wants, God wants, has an idiomatic interpretation not very far from the adage HAPPY WIFE, HAPPY LIFE. Surrounded by symbols associated with feminine divinity, it’s a tongue-in-cheek association between womanhood and godliness, whether that be to say that what is feminine is divine or that what is divine is feminine.
For all the painting’s allusions to divinity, it is ultimately set in the banal, immediate environment. To drink a GRASS JELLY DRINK while seated next to an urn of cosmic symbology and looking the viewer in the eye may not inherently be a sacred ritual, but on the other hand, it isn’t not sacred either. For an artist who centers urns like these, there’s something sacred to the subversion of normative narratives and imagery--to associate prepackaged foods with holy ritual, to twist the portrayal of God to feminine imagery, to paint portraits of women of color. While GRASS JELLY DRINK may not be a cultural reference point for white america, it is sourced from a place of intimacy and immediacy. There remains a pop art aftertaste in associations of commodity with identity--where pop art questioned the nature of art and the value we give to objects, Settles takes a commodity which lacks american cultural ubiquity and asks what it is transformed into when depicted in art (as art?)
Like the objects in the still lifes of Jane Freilicher and the depictions of lower-middle class Japanese daily life in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the setting of Settles’s work draws from what is most immediate and personal. Another painting in the show, Burger Joy, shows two figures lounging on a couch disengaged from each other. One figure, a young black man wearing a Dekalb Farmer’s Market pullover is in a reclining position. The other, an Asian woman with a pixie cut, is looking at her smartphone. There are take-out noodles (from the titular Atlanta late-night delivery spot Burger Joy) on the coffee table. The poet John Yau wrote an essay called “The Pleasures of Doubting”, which appears in an art book on Jane Freilicher, in which he wrote, “Certain artists discover that the things closest to them can be a place of intense revelation.” Like Freilicher, with whom Settles shares her delicate palette and an affinity for botanicals, the repeated return to the same intimate space allows for new realizations to be made about the self that are not inherent to the space.
Yet unlike the work of Freilicher and Ozu, Settle’s work lacks a sense of seasonality. While grounded in today’s fashions and reference points of Atlanta, any given painting of Settle’s could have been made on the same day, in the same exact location, as any other painting of hers. The figures she paints, who are often view from a low-to-the-ground perspective and face-on ala the cinematography methods of Ozu, maintain a state of neutral, if bored, expression and disengagement. All figures have the same facial features--simple, illustrative, and defiant. Shunning both realism and the cluttered, bold patterns of Matisse, it is work of incredible restraint. What vacancies are opened up by this purgatorial consistency, Settles is able to use to communicate primarily through curated sets of objects in a scene and washes of emotive, tender color.
There is so much to say, too much to say, all the nuance in the world to summarize, all the unfathomability of divinity. What there is to say is often beyond the precision of our signifiers, or even, on occasion, too precise. At a certain point, the process of communication precedes the what, the encoded substance. When in a tug-of-war between clarity and encapsulation, the “what” becomes tied to the push-pull of negotiating intent and expression. It is in this place of tension that meaning shifts along with our modes of communication. Frustrations become attached to the inability to articulate and be heard. Whether the meanings are effectively communicated, misinterpreted, or do not escape their conceptual plasma, the very concept of them has some significance. And then, where words fail, there are always flowers.