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Space, Memory, and Spectacle: The Paintings of John Dempsey

Cynthia Greig

  There’s a pleasure in getting lost and surrendering to the chaos, the unknown and the unfamiliar, waking from the predictability of a branded, corporate culture dominated by the sameness of its manufactured redundancy and visual repetition. In other instances, it may evoke terror. Yet the ensuing adrenaline rush heightens our senses; with the focused eye of a stranger in an alien landscape, an explorer in uncharted territory, we are attuned to our surroundings, determined to make our way and survive.

  Welcome to the intricate, elaborate world of John Dempsey’s painted collages and visual labyrinths. They lure us into their maze, bringing together a dense arrangement of seemingly discordant imagery awash in brilliant color, form, and pattern. Applying his particular acumen for finding visual correspondence, Dempsey exploits the viscous mutability of paint to invent whimsical, dreamlike connections between the places where we live, work, recreate and worship. His paintings meditate on the invisible edges that divide infinite space into the specificity of place—where one ends and another begins.

  It is from this conscious sense of place that Dempsey makes his work. While he bases his full-time studio in an enviable, light-filled loft located in downtown Flint, Michigan, each summer his center shifts to New York where he has had an annual studio practice in lower Manhattan for the past 15 years. On occasion, he also paints at his cabin in northern Michigan.

  His discrete bodies of work (Michigan Chronicle, Factory Interiors, and Glare) overlap in subject matter and chronology as they draw attention to the difference between how we experience physical space and how it is represented. Dempsey bases his imagery on photographs he takes of places experienced first hand—General Motors Craft Centre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Saginaw’s Wendler Arena, the New York Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or Bay City’s First Presbyterian Church. Before the advent of the Internet, he was already reconfiguring our perceptual experience by flattening the space between here and there. Aware that he paints from a place outside the center of the art world, it is in his unique ability to envision space and form as malleable that Dempsey begins to dissolve the preconceived boundaries, hierarchies, and status of place by drawing equivalence between them.

  His compositions have more than once been described as “spliced together”1, evoking not only the cinematic technique of montage that juxtaposes one point of view with another, but also the compression of time and space that is physically impossible. For the Michigan Chronicle series (1983-2000), Dempsey paints a range of dissimilar subjects and scenes—factories, churches, municipal buildings, sports arenas, fields, and forests—each contained within a narrow band of a vertical rectangle that spans the length of a large canvas; agriculture and industry, secular and sacred coexist just as summer, winter, night, and day collapse onto a single surface. It’s through his keen eye for seeing and comparing the slightest details that Dempsey discovers relationships between incongruity and difference, creating an intricate rhythm of visual synchronicity between a staccato arrangement of images. In Blue Moon he paints the patterning of amber light glistening on a lake and the negative space between the branches of a moonlit tree to echo the ribbed vaults of a church ceiling. In Touchstone: First Presbyterian Church, Bay City with Salvadoran Earthquake Survivor Dempsey brings together starkly different images that compete for our attention. An unexpected drama unfolds in the sliced head of a purple cabbage as its undulating interior rhythms are magnified in proximity to the human tragedy portrayed in the grisaille rendering of a disaster victim pulled from the pages of the news. Challenging any preconceived understanding of pictorial space and the subjects portrayed, Dempsey reveals the human propensity to perceive patterns and to search for meaning and order in whatever chaos or confusion we encounter.

  Dempsey is among a generation of artists whom American critic and poet John Yau describes as having “embraced their inner rectangle” and its “capaciousness” as a medium.2 Informed by the history of painting and failure of modernism—including Clement Greenberg’s overzealous demand for a “pure” painting that is true to its inherent two-dimensionality—Dempsey, too, reclaims the canvas as an imagined space and matrix on which to paint figurative imagery. Going one step further, by subverting what we expect representation, abstraction, and perspective to do, he turns painting in on itself.

  His early paintings of factories concentrate on the robust musculature of engines and turbines that fueled the manufacture of the American automobile (Front Standard, 1982). In later paintings, Factory Ceiling no.1: Buick City Dempsey looks away from the factory floor and up toward the ceiling in a poetic elegy to the shifting economies and bygone era and dominance of U.S. manufacturing. The painter renders its dynamic architecture as a careful study in light, color, and geometric abstraction. Bathed in hues of violets and blues, the repetition of glass and steel beams becomes a fascinating pattern of line and color that flatten the perception of a vast three-dimensional space. Displaced from the familiar, we become more attuned to its structure as aesthetic form and the elegance of its design.

  For his triptych, The Judgment of General Motors Craft Centre, Lansing, Michigan, Dempsey commissioned two copies of his painting of the auto plant by artists in Shenzhen, China. As a performative gesture, outsourcing his own artistic labor much like GM or Ford sends manufacturing overseas, Dempsey calls attention to how the forces of a global marketplace impact our economies and landscape, whether in the skylines of city buildings and factories, still humming with activity—or those that have since closed and stand as the abandoned remains of a not-too-distant past, ready for the wrecking ball.

  The title of the series Glare refers to the visual phenomenon of a bright light that impairs the ability to see when looking in the same direction. In early images, Dempsey indeed paints a blinding light that obscures the view of a landscape. However, it is the ambiguous, weird, winding forms made up of several interior and exterior views that appear “out of place” as they vacillate between interrupting, and become the focus of our attention. Based on quick sketches or three-dimensional shapes modeled in paper, these multi-faceted things function as an image of an image within an image, a frame within a frame; their unruly forms working in dynamic opposition to the single rectangular enclosure of the canvas.

Dempsey’s painting Glare #6 Civic Center/Winter Woodscape (for Meghan) includes such a “glare” to interrupt the scene of a snow-covered forest: oblique views of a lily pond, natural history display, museum period room, and boxing match—each rendered according to its own rules as if viewed from the distorted perspective of a fish eye lens. In a clever play between figure and ground, Dempsey paints these scenes around a diamond-shaped aperture through which we can see beyond to a distant cluster of wintry trees with their faded, wiry, bare branches breaking up from the sun behind. An anti-window: Dempsey reminds us there is no “beyond” since all representations exist on the same surface. He pushes the limits of figurative space, pointing to the visual clues that direct our gaze and the expectation of a single perspective.

  In Memory Serves no. 2: Ocqueoc/Stream and New York Public Library with Period Room, Dempsey exploits the medium’s fluidity and capacity for invention by painting a landscape from northern Michigan invaded by some of New York’s cultural landmarks. Rendered in opposing and exaggerated perspectives, the elaborate interior of an eighteenth-century period room from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1740) juts through the trompe l’oeil ceilings from the New York Public Library (1911); the colorful floral pattern from the museum’s Savonnerie carpet metamorphoses into a bed of decaying leaves; painted clouds from inside the library’s coffered ceiling appear where one might expect to see the sky peeking through the canopy of trees; the slender trunks of quaking trees mirror the brass arms of an ornate chandelier and appear suspended from the edge of the canvas, hovering between museum, forest, and library. Blurring the boundaries between time and space with the kind of shape-shifting imagery that lingers from a dream, Dempsey imagines their borders as porous and impermanent. Just as memories gather fragments from a larger whole, Dempsey makes and unmakes each space by weaving together a complex tapestry of contradiction and agreement. It is in the seductiveness of his visual alliteration that we become aware of the invisible threshold between nature and culture, here and there, past and present, and the fiction of a static reality.

  Dempsey’s paintings are, in fact, experiences. In Glare #10: Trunk, and Glare #14: Clarion Twist he conjures impossible landscapes within the undulating forms of the anti-window that now dominate the entirety of his canvases. Isolated against a field of color or black void—spanning up to ten feet wide—their untamed forms mimic how our own gaze might meander through their network of imagery. Dempsey paints uncanny moments of passage between an intricate display of competing perspectives that shift between near to far, the part and whole. Like spinning inside a vortex, we can get lost in the moment; or marvel at this quixotic gesture, fully embracing the virtual conundrum of contemporary life and the continuum of time and space. Surrendering to an unknowing, or what art critic Thomas McEvilley calls “a gridless world,”3 the dynamic force of his paintings opens our view onto a nameless place. Through confusion comes enlightenment.

  Whether assembly plant, church, sports arena, theater, library, or museum, the spaces portrayed in Dempsey’s paintings are the kind of places where we pay attention—on work, worship, art, entertainment, or study. Dempsey’s latest painting, Glare #17: Fly Tower includes vignettes of different cultural institutions designed for the spectacle of display—the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History, the open storage display of paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the stage at the Venetian opera house of Teatro La Fenice. A complex arrangement of girders and beams weave in and out of their spaces, drawing comparisons between the places of work and leisure, culture and industry. At the same time, Dempsey paints a triangular form that traverses the canvas, an arrow piercing an oculus-shaped “glare.” Its diagonal force directs our gaze toward the center, just as a street sign guides the flow of traffic on a busy street or an exhibition label (or essay) explains a work of art.

  Art museums, in particular, are spaces for looking and remembering; their exhibitions might present the contemporary art of today or the surviving artifacts of an ancient civilization. As exhibition spaces, they frame the past or present, displaying a select group of objects and images arranged around a particular narrative that makes sense of infinite time as sequential or historical. Arranged as if inside a memory palace or according to the ancient method of loci,4 the intricate flow of exhibition spaces wind within the form of an “all-seeing” eye, and beneath the hovering presence of a woman. In this latest painting, Dempsey introduces a witness to his work. Painting a portrait of his wife Margo, as if in an in-between state—looking down or perhaps imagining or remembering with her eyes closed. Her image calls to mind the difference between looking and seeing, dreaming and waking. She mirrors our own presence as perceptive viewer or fallible witness. Reflecting on the fickle nature of memory and the impermanence of experience, as each moment becomes a memory followed by another, Dempsey pays homage to the inherent alchemy of paint, giving form to the hidden worlds that we cannot yet see, but all face.

  As Duchamp observed, perception is a participatory act. Dempsey’s paintings ask for viewers, like the artist, to seek visual associations, cognates, similarities, and differences among the confounding multiplicity of perspectives, subjects, and scenes portrayed. It’s through what Victor Burgin identifies as “optimum discrimination” that we become aware of our environment—in this case the painting—and perceive relationships that give shape and order to our experience.5 Dempsey’s work draws attention to the selective nature of perception and memory, and how we construct meaning through our own particular personal point of view.

  The beauty of human consciousness is that we have the potential to unravel the illusion of appearance and imagine perspectives other than our own. Dempsey’s uniquely obsessive penchant for devising unpredictable relationships between the otherwise unconnected serves to transform and heighten our own awareness. His paintings prompt us to clear the mental dust from our minds and adjust our view to consider nearness in the vicinity of distance, finding common ground between sameness and difference. Perhaps we should consider a suspension of the beliefs that limit our perspective and repel us from what seems foreign or unfamiliar. John Dempsey’s paintings are places where we, too, can test our own capacity for a closer observation of relationships, and perhaps reflect on the preconceived notions that color our worlds.

Cynthia Greig, artist and author, 2017.

This essay originally appeared in John Dempsey, Take Place, selected work,  ISBN 978-0-36-883996-2, 2017.



1 Christopher R. Young, Flint Journal, Aug 1, 1999, F4; Collen Sherman. “Sketchbook: John Dempsey” Artist Resource News, vol. VI, September 1990.

2 John Yau. “Back When Painting Was Dead” Hyperallergic, Feb 10, 2018

3 Thomas McEvilley. Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (Aesthetics Today),

Allworth Press, 1999, 4.

4 Method of Loci is a mnemonic system that involves making mental associations between specific objects and rooms arranged within an imagined architecture to establish an order of relationships through which memorized content can be located, retrieved and remembered. For more read Eilean Hooper-Greenhill. Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, London and New York: Routledge, 90-101

5 For more on perceptual experience read Victor Burgin. “Situational Aesthetics,” Studio International, Vol. 178, No. 915 (October, 1969), 8.

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