Melissa Dadourian 

A version of this review appeared in Pitch Magazine:

New Center for Contemporary Art, Louisville, Kentucky, 2006

A strand of DNA.  A  spider’s web.  The stitches across a wound.  The perception of life is fleshy, heavy, but it is the gossamer thread that knots us to our bodies.  Nature itself, reduced to the rudiments of raw data, is the wavy line: the rings of a tree, the stratums of sedimentary rock, the concentric swirls of topographical and satellite maps.  

In the work of Melissa Dadourian, the line maps sexual/cultural identity.  Outlining 60s and 70s pictorials from Playboy Magazines, Dadourian fashions iconological fossils.  The line is raised, suggesting a physical body long since passed into an ephemeral state; the colors are primarily two-tonal, taking on a layering effect and the period hues of the pictorials.  Liberated from their own eras, the images are reasserted, reassigned.  Dadourian’s subject is not one of exploitation, but of transgression; any patriarchal architecture is supplanted by a more intrinsic expression of the female divine.  They are not playmates, but in Dadourian’s term “playgirls,” representing an emancipation from social constraints, and history itself.

To pull a thread from the fabric of history, of culture, is to undo the intricate weave of the best, the worst, that humanity has realized.  As demonstrated by the delicate lines of Dadourian’s forms, we are a graceful species; in counterpoint, the Playboy images that provide the source material for Dadourian’s figures are essentially unreal—posed, airbrushed, unlikely.  And the viewer (as well, the reader of Playboy Magazine) is in stark contrast to the fantasy.  We are our own combinations of hair, flab and pain: far from the paradigm Venuses that grace the pages of the glossy magazine.  And yet, that’s what sex is.  It is fantasy, and flesh.  A pristine haute cuisine, enjoyed by the diner because it is undercooked.  

In Dadourian’s sweeping exhibition at Louisville’s New Center for Contemporary Art, a collection of fifteen paintings intertwine discourses personal and public, at-large, and at home.  “Nest,” a tangle of blazing yellow on Robin Hood green, suggests chaos theory, or a biological structure under super magnification.  From largest to smallest, the sense is of conflict, but also interconnectivity, and the resulting electricity.  Not only atoms, not only human beings, not only culture thrives on a threshold of friction.  The painted image too, as Dadourian’s images directly iterate, is native to contrast, and unexpected relationships.  Dadourian’s color palette, and combination of imagery is her own, and without the feeling of any imposed dogma.  Dadourian’s curiosity with the fat man in his toolshed thumbing through his porn magazine in 1974, makes for a juxtaposition of sharp delineation, as well as a curious perfection.  A total balance of disparity.

This is Dadourian’s line.  In the composition of “Eva,” we find more evidence of Dadourian’s intended equilibrium.  Dadourian’s figure stares out, Zen-like, inviting the viewer to participate in a naturalistic rendering of space.  But the space is patently flat, and no aspect of the tableau is “realistic”—not the Disney birds, not the knotted tree, not the bulging flowers.  In fact, a bird, holding Dadourian’s line in its beak, threatens to unravel the figure—and the life-giving essence of the tree is entirely missing: no leaves.  And still, the image touches some part of us that is pulsing, alive.  Perhaps the painting moves that part of our psyche that is learned; it reflects our nurture, socialization.  Perhaps the image touches an innate attraction to uncertainty—the sexual charge of risk.  The appeal of Dadourian’s choreography is that it twirls coyly on the threshold of multiple oppositions.

For most, the expectation is that the artist will reject pop culture, political culture, the way of life that everyone else values.  For those in certain circles within the arts, this idea has become so pandemic, so toxic, that the inclination is to embrace everything: every tabloid alien, and celebrity make-over.  Media is no more immune to these prejudices, and the result on the arts is catastrophic.  Much of the challenge of artists working today is in avoiding these over-simplifications, while at the same time avoiding overly complicating the creation, and the creative process.

Beyond Dadourian’s rigorous thinking, her method is primarily one of restraint.  The outline, anathema to instructors of Drawing 101, is Dadourian’s most apparent technique.  Her monochromatic shapes defy color theory and notions of abstract space and geometry.  Despite the sexiness of the images, Dadourian has done nothing overt to make the images sexy.  Dadourian’s stripped down machine accentuates the decisions she does make, and the arch of the back, the arch of a line, the slight variation in a nearly monochromatic background, are charged with significance.

Ideas of parenthood, motherhood, are strangely absent from contemporary discussions of art.  Exceptions arise, of course (Mary Kelly, recent drawings by Michelle Segre) but for a part of human life that is so central, the subject goes surprisingly unconsidered.  Dadourian’s feminine form regards us across a chasm of not just sexuality, but conception.  Dadourian, recently a mother herself, conveys a completeness to her seducers.  Her “playgirls” are not in need of sex.  They are not wanton or lustful; they are sexual.  The implication is one of conception: that glow of a woman even in her first trimester.  Taken as a whole, Dadourian’s “Nests” and portraits are distinctly expecting.  The zygot of Dadourian’s whirls, the womb-like drapery that renders her models modest.  To the male imagination, the figures are recast to a more natural call; to the female, they are a glance across the barrier of motherhood, a look back, or a look forward.  None of which is to say that Dadourian doesn’t retain the starkness, the emptiness, of porn.  To seek a vision of sexual promiscuity, predation, or total personal independence, is to find it.

With feline agility, Dadourian pitches her ball of wool—unspinning mores, and appetites.  Dadourian’s quiet insistence burns into the memory of her viewers.  Neon in the dim auspice of our nervous system.