Exhibition review: Jim Dine

What would you think of a show where every print was covered with hammers and saws and an almost endless variety of spanners, scissors, tongs, pliers, and pincers?

Jim Dine’s A History of Communism at London’s Alan Cristea Gallery offers a complex array of impressions. I came away impressed with the ingenuity, intrigued and a little moved too, but also somewhat uneasy. Let me explain.

Dine has used a series of lithographic stones left over from an art academy in the German Democratic Republic that was given to him by his friends Sarah Dudley and Ulie Kuhle. These were presumably made by students in the academy over the years. He then worked over the drawings using symbols, some of which he normally uses in his own art works, to give his personal narrative, a history of communism as he saw it.

The original lithographs ranged from the amateurish attempts at a portrait of an old man or elephant, to heroic muscular soldiers, determined miners and a serious looking female worker whose piercing gaze and resolute lips would have been looking down from countless posters and tracts across the country exhorting hard work, and projecting the optimism for a future that seemed forever round the corner. It is what Dine did with these lithographs that is fascinating.

There are the scissors arrayed in a semicircle, eyes at the top, through which one can see an industrial landscape –like a sinister line up of prying eyes fanning across the country, observing every move made by the workers.

Or the juxtaposition of a saw with a female head, as if it is about to be sawn off. In another print a spanner looks for all the world, like a Tyrannosaurus rex about to pounce and devour a heroic horse, while on the other side a man and a horse are wielding a huge hammer about to give it a lethal clout.

Then there is the nude, her head and long hair falling back in an ecstatic pose, surrounded by clouds of black nothingness, dark gloom.

What is perhaps remarkable is that Dine seems to be kinder to the more propaganda-like lithographs. The two hammers surrounding the head of the heroic soldier face outwards. And then there is a portrait of an old man with glasses and a penetrating gaze who has a remarkable resemblance to Walter Ulbricht, the tyrannical first leader of the German Democratic Republic.

What is unclear is whether Dine had created the portrait or he had touched up the original to make it look like the dreaded ogre. Whatever the relative contributions of student or artist, it is a remarkable, dark and strangely beautiful hybrid.

While walking around the exhibition one of the other visitors asked me a question that left an uneasy sense. What are the ethics of using original works by others without their permission, he asked. I guess they would never have got the exposure if Dine hadn’t done what he did, he quickly added. Yes, I replied, I too feel a little uneasy, particularly as some of the students are probably still alive today.

As to the exhibition title, this is clearly not a history of communism. Even the GDR did not even call itself socialist, let alone communist – after all, it was a supposedly ‘democratic’republic. The exhibition should perhaps be more appropriately titled The history of American exceptionalism.

Be that as it may I came away with a feeling that the epithet ‘extraordinary’does correctly describe these prints. They are well worth a visit as is the accompanying exhibition Jim Dine: Printmaker, with fourteen recent additions as well as classic prints to celebrate the artist’s fifty years as printmaker. There you can also see Dine’s trademark of hammers used in a different, non-political context.

Mohsen Shahmanesh

Jim Dine: A History of Communism will be in Alan Cristea Gallery, Cork Street, London from 10 September –7 October 2014.

Read more reviews by Mohsen Shahmanesh.

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