The one thing you can say for sure about Dawn DeDeaux’s work is that you can never be certain what to expect.
Taking the mantle of “multimedia artist” to its fullest potential, DeDeaux’s work over the years has encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture, hologram projections, digital imagery, installations and performance. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes.
A staggeringly complex multimedia installation in and around a French Quarter courtyard involving DeDeaux’s artistic reconfiguration of John Kennedy Toole’s epic New Orleans novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” for the Prospect.2 biennial in 2011 had almost too many ideas to process in one visit, or even several. A sort of delirious too-muchness is often a hallmark of DeDeaux’s style.
That same conceptual abundance is well-evidenced in DeDeaux’s current show at Arthur Roger Gallery in the Warehouse District, “Does Anyone Remember Laughter?: Lost Landscapes and Lonely Men.” (Even DeDeaux’s titles tend to have a lot going on in them.)
The title is a reference to a legendary ad-lib in a filmed live performance of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin’s Roger Plant.
Here, it serves not only as a reminder of a more carefree past than the troubled present and future represented in DeDeaux’s current work, but also of the metaphorical “stairways to heaven” that appear throughout her depictions of the “MotherShip”: both the Earth itself and a massive ring-shaped structure designed to help mankind escape from a coming apocalypse. (DeDeaux constructed a giant model of the apparatus in an abandoned building behind the new Arts Estuary building on Elysian Fields just off St. Claude Avenue last spring.)
DeDeaux’s work has often been more about ideas than actual objects, and some of the pieces in her current show don’t always live up to the lofty narratives she uses to set them up.
The six-panel, 10-by-24-foot digital drawing on metal “Hermitage Horizon,” depicting a suitably moody if vaguely generic swamp landscape, seems better suited to filling up wall space than contributing to the post-apocalyptic story of the MotherShip and its attendant concepts of life, death, regeneration and survival.
Landscapes where the MotherShip “lifeline vessel” itself make an appearance — equal parts construction project, rollercoaster and giant Erector set — are more successful. The mechanical outlines of the structure create an engaging formal and conceptual counterpoint to the tangles of dense foliage which threaten to overwhelm it.
Throughout the series, DeDeaux’s structures, landscapes and shrouded figures offer a poetic if tantalizingly opaque blueprint for humanity’s survival. Her enigmatic “Space Clowns,” with their floppy stature and colorfully patterned and textured spacesuits and backgrounds, look winsomely ill-equipped for the rigors of interstellar travel. But they also look like they’ll at least enjoy the ride to wherever they’re going.
DeDeaux’s “Dance” paintings reimagine the joyous dancing figures in Matisse’s seminal work as caught up in a rather more menacing vortex, either hurtling toward oblivion or being spirited away from it depending on the perspective.
Elsewhere in the show, a pair of ladders embedded with texts in ancient scripts seems to comment on the ways language and mythologies are used as tools for recording the past as well as advancing toward, or escaping from, an often uncertain future.
But the most striking work in the current show is the one DeDeaux describes as being a “centerpiece” for the entire MotherShip series, even if at first it seems unrelated to the other works in the saga. “Pale Horse in Self-Reflection” is a stunning tableau depicting a three-dimensional aluminum horse gazing at its two-dimensional digital print counterpart.
It’s a richly evocative piece that resists a strictly literal interpretation. And like the best of DeDeaux’s work, it functions on the haunting, free-associative level of a half-remembered dream.
John D’Addario writes about visual art. He can be reached at email@example.com.