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Jim Dine--Ecstasy on Paper : His recent drawings can be seen in Santa Barbara

February 26, 1989|WILLIAM WILSON

An exhibition of drawings by Jim Dine at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art poses a visual question. Whatever happened to humanism with its compassion and despair? Humanism used to be Albert Camus in "The Rebel" looking at revolution with clinical French detached engagement. These days humanism is Secular Humanism, a dirty word to those who cling to revived old-time religion. Nobody practices it except off-duty psychiatrists with two Scotches in them. Sheesh.

What was humanism anyway? Probably the evolution of the Renaissance notion that man is the measure of all things. By the time that brave dream had been worried and distressed through two world wars it was as ratty as a pit bull's favorite teddy bear.

It was the idea that a belief could be constructed from the rubble of dead gods and burned out myths strewn around the Western world like so many nuked cities. Humankind would fashion a votive figure from its own best efforts--its liberalism, urbanity, art, music, literature, theater--its culture in short. The enterprise was self-effacing on its face because everybody knew human shortcomings all too well. If people were going to try to worship themselves again they had to do so with Zen-like humility. Two bowls of rice and a black turtleneck. But it turned out that human self-esteem would have its day. The figurative art--the Bacons and Giacomettis--that rolled forth from the existential epoch tended to get swamped in the egotism of style. Virtuosity plagues Dine's drawings.

Odd. For Dine, this work represents a personal breakthrough, a step forward into something very roughly akin to Neo-Expressionism. For the viewer it is liable to function as a ticket back to the 1950s, back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Howard Warshaw was a local hero at UC Santa Barbara making bloated bravura drawings that echoed the work of Rico LeBrun down in L.A.

Jim Dine is more known than seen on the West Coast. Every attentive citizen remembers him as a '60s pioneer of New York Happenings and performance art inspired by Allan Kaprow. They remember him even more clearly as one of the leaders of the pop art movement but one of those who--unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein--avoided chilly irony in favor of a more affectionate approach--like Red Grooms or Tom Wesselmann in that way.

Dine, now 53, has achieved trademark images--his animated empty bathrobe, racks of hand tools and little plump hairy hearts. They turn up in this exhibition--a touring affair organized by the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati and on view here to March 26. But the show is really about Dine since 1973, about his intense affair with the traditional medium of drawing, the classic challenge of the self-portrait and the nude, among other things.

He most assuredly can draw most assuredly. He attacks like the painter he is with a rich sooty line that describes a pouchy wrinkle next to a nose and then blossoms into a shadow wrapping a head. The line goes thin and Ingres-like up into the light where it likes to describe eyes as glassy and colorless.

He draws with the richness of a painter and indeed these are drawings of big painterly proportion, often in color. Some have been attacked with a power sander, worked over in layers so the results are juicy, dense and inevitable like something that's been left to wash in the rain and bake in the sun.

His favorite models are himself, his wife, Nancy, and a statuesque neighbor named Jessica. He describes everybody unsparingly with the intensity of those who know that all those blots and lines are supposed to carve a form out of a flat surface. Nobody is flattered in a good drawing. Nine versions of his own bald and bearded head are wonderful in the way they catch subtle changes in expression and almost funny in their manic concentration. Nancy goes from looking like a heroic youth a la Tiepolo to a giant Fayum mummy portrait of Jean Kirkpatrick. Jessie goes from being a simple Andrew Wyeth who's been looking at too much Dali to a nude Amazon with a lush body and a skull head.

For Dine, the sheer act of drawing approaches a state of religious ecstasy, but he doesn't quit there and sometimes we wish he would. His art has always carried a mixed sensibility like a big corpulent cupcake of a guy inhabited by the lean soul of a dandy. Aubrey Beardsley trapped in Ed Asner's body. No wonder it's hard to know what to make of his art.

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