Persona Diary: Pia Dehne

A version of this essay was published in the catalogue (Pia Dehne), “I’m So Happy I Could Die.” 

Several years ago I woke in the middle of the night with an insight into the book of Ecclesiastes.  In the King James Version, the repeated refrain is, "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity."  Various other translations employ the word "frailty."  Ecclesiastes is a short, dark book of the Bible that is, though poetic, fairly direct.  This chorus of "vanity of vanities" always troubled me as being a little out of place, and maybe a little wrong.  And the translation of "frailty" was no better.  So, this word was one of those things that I was often mulling over, and, in the night, I woke up thinking that the right word, the mot juste, was "pretense."  

Pretense of pretense, all is pretense.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, see this is new?  It hath been already of old time, which was before us.   

As for the rest of Ecclesiastes, the contemporariness had never come forth as powerfully as it might have, but with the word "pretense," suddenly, it did.  Here was the post, post-modern discovery-that the solution of self-aggrandizement, in a world where "everything has been done," is itself insipid, and certainly no act of heroism.  In the current environment, the critique of "artist as hero" as an extolling of notions that are themselves outdated and rote is particularly relevant.  The existential scream is a seemingly inexhaustible source of bad artists and crashing bores.

Pia Dehne's drawing series, I'm so happy I could die, takes the analysis of this elated desponding to a level of scientific precision.  In a uniform presentation of sketches (pencil and graphite on paper, 23 inch x 30 1/2), Dehne documents the simultaneity  of self-annihilation and self-promotion that is emblematic of the twenty-first century pursuit of self-fulfillment.  Fake ZZ Tops exemplifies that striving for happiness in social milieus that are intrinsically depressing.  Thumbs up.  Let the good times roll. 

This past year in New York saw a good deal of those rolling good times.  After the events of last September, and the onset of the Globalization Blues, the Sam Adams and Vermouth was flowing.  The period demands narrative explanations-in terms of the present moment, and the century that lead up to that moment.  Dehne's visual diary, based on snapshots of, for the most part, evenings out, captures this narrative, not just with a photojournalistic methodology, but with the more illuminative pencil line of Dehne's day sketches (one a day.)  The drawings convey relations and nuances beyond the capacity of the still frame-both in the gray space and gray imaginings of the figures and grounds (Mihan & Marc), as well as in the psychology of itinerant moments (Nicole & Eurae).  

Perhaps the most consistent element of Dehne's candids is their repeated insistence, albeit blasé, that there is nothing candid about them.  Dehne's figures, such as those represented in Muscha & Gudrian, are always posing.  On her tour, often of the New York City Artworld, Dehne's becomes an expose of an environment not entirely public, and not entirely private-and the personas that inhabit this world, likewise, sustain a continual conflict between what is interior and what is exterior.  However simplistic, assumptions of inner passions driving extroverted creativity are often foremost in interactions in these arenas, and Dehne identifies them unsentimentally.  Ironically enough, both in creative culture and pop culture, the dream is to create a persona, a total pretense, that connotes an individual's core intensity.  This is the dream of self obfuscation-that the outward world will be so intrigued by this mystery, or this lack of self, that the person behind the void will be investigated, discovered, and deemed, not just worthy, but, preferably, bedazzling.  Dehne, however, is willing to take a good long look at those wide eyes and torn t-shirts, in order to find, well, wide eyes and torn t-shirts.

Dehne's subjects are aware of the camera, and of her, "the artist."  Their sad eyes look to say-yes, I'm captured again, and you know me all too well, and you know me not at all.  But besides this head-on controversion, Colin & Frank and Phillipe & ...? also put forth another argument-that of the subject looking away, suffering either the disease of nostalgia or anticipation (Matt & Brian, Sprague & Seth, and Jo & Brad).  In the case of Nicole & Eunae, the attitude of the primary model is one of total self-absorbtion. 

Indeed, more often than not, Dehne's figures can only interact through a veil of anger and/or suspicion.  Colin & Kimbra and Daw, K.A., & Fat Boy evidence this kind of pretense.  The figure, K.A., employs a spit curl as a self-conscious smirk at personal identity-and public persona.  The Mohawk and cigarette of Josef & Nancy functions similarly, as does the middle finger of S.S..  Contrariness, drunken assertion, and drunken postulating serve as alternative divides, in Anself & Susanne, and Kari & Nanci.  In Rayen & Marc the figures are literally bisected by the concept of-the drink in hand.  This idea is furthered in Berlin, by the self obliterating, faceless drinker, Ben.  Really, nobody in Dehne's series ever seems to be with anyone else.  Rather, Dehne's figures are separate in the same space, and if you are not confronted by the barrier of the spit-curl, the middle finger, or the Mohawk, even the lover sleeping in your lap (Ela & Scott) can only touch you across an expanse of alcohol.

Alcohol, to Dehne, plays a major role-in part as a defense against intimacy, in part as a facilitator of intimacy.  An entire table of empty bottles and plastic cups underlines this importance in Corner of Canal.  With her figures often hidden behind their own beer bottles or martini glasses (Haim & Gwen), alcohol is the predominant tool wielded in the two-sided  process of self loss and self advertisement.  To Dehne, even a dog (Pug), in this analogy of the world as desert, presents himself with a parched, if not drunken appeal, as if to assent-sure, you just keep my dog-bowl wet, you can drive me this way.  Rayon, Bitty, Aron, Michelle pour their social solution directly down the throat of one fuck-you finger toter.  Dan & Konlai and Thommas, Eric & Adrian find acceptance via drunken antics.  In keeping with this psychology, the only  peace attained by Dehne's subjects is that of drunken collapse-and the total elimination of self depicted in Matt & Brian, and Jerry.

For those who don't care to go out art hopping or drinking, Dehne's alternatives are few-and no more appealing.  As for other pursuits/lifestyles, Dehne can only shruggingly suggest, for men (Sprague & Rett), guns, binoculars, and baseball hats, and, for woman (Rachel & Cornia), plants, fabrics, and sewing machines.  Furthermore, Dehne's isolated figures reiterate that not even in these comraderly activities can one find empathy-only an accompaniment of solitude.  All we/she can do is look on, as Isabelle plays cat's cradle.  

Dehne, nevertheless, always relates  her subjects with enormous tenderness-even when they are outwardly at their most superficial and absurd (Lisa & Brooke).  In a demonstration of her own role as the observer, Dehne's Tico & Onga gently lays bare the vulnerability of her model, and the yearning manifested by an unremitting, unadvancing, quest for escape.  Isabelle & Sprague, affectionately feeding each other over a warm stove, is Dehne's reminder that we must, despite everything, never lose sight of our own animal innocence.

On initial viewing, Pia Dehne's series of drawings, I'm so happy I could die, seems to be a showman's spiel-an introduction of the beautiful people.  Friends as celebrities.  This, however, is not the impetus of Dehne's work, nor the progressive significance that viewers of the work will find-for the luster of Dehne's good-looking people has more to do with interior illusion than external reality.  Dehne's is a testament to contemporary purgatory.  Lovingly, and unsparingly, she documents this turn of the century with, beyond censure or applause, the understanding of an animal behaviorist, and the eye of a naturalist.  The nights are cool and long-and Dehne is out there, waiting to catch you on your nocturnal round.  The camera will flash, and you will grin, or grimace, and betray your knowledge of all too little, and all too much.