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Articles of Faith
celtic cross

Dan Addington

Contemporary Art Workshop

February 15 - April 1, 1997

By Fred Camper

There's something decidedly 19th century about Dan Addington's 23 paintings, mostly on panel, at the Contemporary Art Workshop, despite their shapes floating in disembodied space and the occasional collaged fragment of a photocopy. Not only does the mood evoke the nostalgia of Caspar David Friedrich paintings of ruins, the images seem to express an unfashionable straightforward belief in the symbolic power of objects.

The large dark brown Celtic cross at the center of Muireadach's Cross (pictured above) floats in a luminous field of smeary yellow green and appears to be dripping pigment in a kind of painterly blur that recalls Jasper Johns. Like most of Addington's paintings, this one is covered with a thick layer of beeswax, which adds a peculiar sense of age and ambiguous depth: this complexity, together with a heavy black frame, gives the dark, solid cross an odd power that belies the modernist artifice of the dripping paint. In Congregate, Celtic crosses of various sizes float against an abstract ground that varies from pale blue-green to red; the crosses seem adrift in space, now confined to a flat surface, then becoming objects in space again, seeming almost animated, alive.

Addington, 33, a Chicagoan, cites painterly influences from Jim Dine and Larry Rivers to Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but this series has its roots in a trip to Ireland last year, when he spent two weeks driving around looking at ruins. "In continental Europe," he told me, "many of the Gothic cathedrals are still being used, still beautiful, still kept up. In Ireland you go into cathedrals and you're still outdoors, because they're ruins. Or you can be out in the middle of nowhere and come up over a hill and there's this 12-meter-high sandstone cross with intricate carvings. It's still a mystery as to what their purpose was. But I've read some about Celtic Christianity: it had more of a connection to the land and to earlier Celtic mythology. Celtic Christianity has a real ecological theme. St. Patrick's writings constantly make reference to the land and nature." At the same time, he says, the ruins exuded "a kind of melancholy. There's a sense of sadness in the landscape too - it's drizzly or hear the wind."

Addington also looked at illuminated manuscripts - he mentions the most famous, the Book of Kells - and though he says he didn't want to put them directly into his paintings, they still seem to be an influence. Plant shapes at the edges recall the ornate borders of manuscript pages, and pale horizontal lines near the center suggest rows of text. Shamrock shapes, which appear as often as crosses, recall the way plant forms often adorn the middle of the text as well. In Beyond the Pale, one of five large paintings here, these and other elements converge to form a shifting dreamworld of belief and loss. A thin, dark band at the bottom depicts a silhouetted landscape of trees and a tower, giving the picture a literal ground, but most of it is a free-floating field of changing colors and somewhat defined shapes. Crosses, shamrocks, a pinkish set of elongated hands whose position suggests prayer or pleading, and a dimly outlined double serpent are defined by pale lines and colors always on the point of being reabsorbed into the amorphous surface. Though these shapes have an iconic power, it's qualified by abstraction, which creates a distance between the viewer and the beliefs the symbols evoke. The decayed-looking surface also adds distance, as if these forms were being reintegrated with nature.

A group of smaller, more realistic landscapes, oils without a wax covering, reveal an even greater debt to 19th century romanticism. In Drumcliff a carved Celtic cross towers over an abstracted landscape whose horizon shows the pale orange of dawn or dusk; in Ceiran's Garden we see a field of crosses against a dark sky. In both paintings the crosses have some distinct details but are hardly photographic, and together their relative lack of detail and the dominating indistinct sky suggest that the painter's nostalgia for faith is as much a subject as faith itself. Addington, a Christian, has managed to create paintings whose mournfulness suggests both belief and loss: belief in a world in which symbols still have meaning, and acknowledgment that the withering away of tradition has distanced us from their power.

Copyright 1997 Fred Camper
Excerpted from "Articles of Faith: Dan Addington and Jason La Mantia",
Chicago Reader, March 21, 1997.
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