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Henry Dean: An artist of process 

click to enlarge Black Cuillins
  • Black Cuillins

ARTIST HENRY DEAN is not rare in finding his creative muse in the natural environment—it has called many before him and will continue to call others.

But for Dean, it is the not nouns of nature—grass, rock, tree, flower—he finds inspiration in, rather it is the verbs of nature.

“…overgrown, eroded, swept by, forsook, prayed to… touched, sunned, studied, sounding, nurtured, loved…” Dean writes in his artist statement.

This interest in action has led Dean to be an artist of process, rather than of medium.

“My practice as an artist has always been multi-media,” says Dean.

Dean has worked in paint, drawing media, sculpture, photography, installation and less traditional mediums, namely what he calls “immersive pieces”—canvases left in marshes to be marked by nature.

On view until October 30 at the Cultural Arts Gallery is Dean’s solo exhibition “= CREEKS + FOLDS =” which includes drawings, paintings, marsh pieces and a large-scale installation. The works were created both in the Lowcountry and on the Isle of Skye in Scotland while Dean was on sabbatical.

Displayed is not just Dean’s versatility, but his approach to art making—rigorous practice where the aim is not necessarily an artwork that moves through its beauty, but through its process and relation to the environment of its creation.

“The idea is a holistic understanding of what nature is. It’s not about pictures,” says Dean.

After teaching at SCAD for fifteen years, Dean was eligible for a sabbatical and wanted to take his practice to the United Kingdom, where he was born and lived until he moved to America when he was ten.

“I wanted to go to the Isle of Skye because when I was in university I went there with a friend of mine for about two days and I had this incredibly powerful memory of this landscape. It’s stayed with me forever,” says Dean.

Chasing the remembrance of “colors and landforms,” Dean arrived on the isle.

“It was this incredibly intense thing—arriving at Glasgow, going to Skye and literally for one month just banging it out. I was incredibly productive,” he says.

The product of this time is numerous small, vivid drawings.

“They are very compact, little jewels of color and composition. When I’m out there, I’m aware of the mark making—the textures of the ground and the textures of the sea, the wind coming along,” says Dean.

“I also was working very much from motion,” he continues.

Standing before any landscape, Dean notes the shift in existential perspective.

“Human beings become unimportant and it’s more about the birds, the geology, the passing of the clouds, the history,” says Dean.

Upon return from Scotland, Dean found opportunity to produce a new series of immersive marsh pieces at the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center in Beaufort County.

Dean embedded ten canvases secured to “rigs” resembling easels in the Chechessee River just off the docks of the Maritime Center for 6½ weeks.

Dean draws connections between the marks made by his own hand and the effects of the water on the canvases.

“The mark making with the immersive pieces is so important to me. I’m looking at the way that the water in the moment is hitting the surface of the canvas and its reflections. Looking at the mud and the way that the tide is going in and out,” he says.

While Dean has explored this process many times before, with these works he is “upping the ante” by playing with the shape of the frames. They defy traditional canvas shapes and instead are distorted rectilinear shapes influenced by Dean’s trepidations about new technologies.

“The shapes are the most conscious, controlled expression of my feelings about the new world that we’re living in. What I’m doing is taking screen aspect ratios and imaging them being turned in space,” he says.

The resulting works are alluring. They are blank canvases on which to project any number of thoughts, feelings or meanings, while also being literal in what they are. They show the natural building and decay that happens in nature and in ourselves.

click to enlarge Mixed Media
  • Mixed Media
Additionally, Dean presents a large installation. A dark, rocky sphere bisected by a round table—the table’s pedestal base emerging from the sphere—floats above scattered rocks, the mass suspended from a wooden archway.

This piece is “sort of light and heavy at the same time,” seeming both consequential and whimsical.

The cleaving of the globe calls to Dean’s multi-national identity and the natural forces uniting his citizenry.

“The gulfstream connects us,” Dean says. “I think that’s a beautiful metaphor in a way for my identity, which is a world citizen, somebody who appreciates the world.”

Dean’s appreciation of the world is his true focus and not just in his work but in the work’s intention. It’s not the accolades of the art world and its institutions he seeks.

When speaking of his submerged canvases, Dean says, “If the birds see it and the crabs swim past it and the fish swim past it, maybe the occasional boater sees it, I’m very happy with that.”

= CREEKS + FOLDS =

From the Low Country to the Isle of Skye

Works by Henry Dean

When: October 2– 30, M-F 9-5pm

Where: 9 West Henry Street

Info: 912-651-6783 or dzumstein@savannahga.gov

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Lauren Flotte

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