Marianne Dages has achieved something decidedly difficult in Distant Operator at Napoleon–a body of work that is highly theoretical and still manages to be aesthetically pleasing with little effort. Translation is the central point of the work, especially of communal/personal experience into myths both large and small, intimate and universal. I am immediately aware of the space that the work takes up in the room, or rather the space that it leaves. A remarkable lightness permeates this amalgamation of assemblages and papers. Even the lead box that sits on the floor pushed against the side of the gallery seems to cling to the wall, as if it is trying to pull itself up to be elevated with the rest of the work.
Taken quickly these pieces seem intensely personal, as if someone had taken a secret diary, dissected and dismantled it, and then pasted it on a wall to be scrutinized a la Law & Order investigation. As the viewer moves through this, it becomes apparent that there are clearly two distinct forces or persons at work here–the self and the other. Dages outlines translation as a unifying theme in the work, and it seems generative. Intimate scribbles and unchained linework feature prominently, and there is always a sense that these are impressions of things since gone missing or maybe never attainable at all. These are potent properties of myths; maybe our intimate fantasies are more communally grounded than we would like to admit.
The ‘self’ and ‘other’ function in multiple ways for Dages. As a child that grew up bilingual in English and French, she has developed what she feels to be two distinct sides of her personality. This fact is less immediately apparent but certainly informs the work once realized, and we become observers of these internal conversations. Dages also mentions how larger societal myths and experiences translate into our personal lives and the construction of our own fantasies. This is the angle that comes through clearly in her use of found materials. Torn book pages and paper clippings hang in proximity to gestural drawings and impressions of similar scenes–a group of flowers or a photograph of a family of lions clipped from National Geographic. Many of the images and samples have a sense of exoticism or mystery, the sort of things that seem more easily attainable the younger you are.
A success of the work is an emphasis on variety of process. Dages has worked mainly in printmaking, photography, and book arts. These processes clearly influence the narrative display of the work, and reaching connections between pieces both aesthetically and in process is intuitive and enjoyable for the eye. The materiality of her pieces correlates to her love of books: bone, ink, lead, and thread all feature prominently. Even these objects reach a higher significance under Distant Operator’s themes; the mortal utility of bone, the toxic allure of lead, or the permanence of ink. These executions are fluid and varied, charcoal rubbings and darkroom prints made without cameras and using only photographic chemicals become visually interchangeable while staying theoretically disparate.
The narrative of this exhibition is in fact made up of an impossible number of independent enigmatic narratives, sewn together with invisible thread to form a whole. This is much like our own lives are rationalized as coherent from infinite random occurrences of growth and personal development. The show itself is made up of selections from a variety of Dages independent projects rather than the product of dedicated singular production.
Text also features heavily, either sourced or original. Dages uses letterpress to sparingly offer snippets of stories or recollections on parchment and vellum. A few pieces feature from a recent residency in Iceland, where she says she was influenced by hearing and seeing a language she didn’t understand. The symbolic nature of much of the text and imagery is illuminated by her interest in seeing language as visual information and its translation into personal ‘hieroglyphics’ and symbols.
The only hangup I envision with her execution is the rigorous effort that it takes to fully understand and digest the recurring elements and overarching themes without investing heavily in her lengthy write-up. To some this is rewarding and intriguing, to others the breakthrough might be too distant. I can hardly blame Dages for attempting to cast such a wide and intricate net, however. This is worth the effort.
Distant Operator by Marianne Dages is on view at Napoleon Gallery until January 30th, 2015. www.napoleonnapoleon.com