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Lip Service

'Dali's Mustache' is a clever take on the artist's irreverent approach to himself.


Under normal circumstances, celebrity facial hair would not be a viable raison d'etre for an art exhibit such as "Dali's Mustache," now at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard.

But then, Salvador Dali made a career by craftily avoiding normality, first as a surrealist painter and then as a self-perpetuating, image-savvy legend.

Before Andy Warhol's dry manipulations of the notion of artist-as-celebrity, Dali was out there, massaging his ego and public image at a time when he had nothing left to say as an artist.

And so, when noted photographer Philippe Halsman was assigned to shoot Dali for Life magazine in the '50s, the event turned into something grander, and sillier--a book based on a series of absurdly theatrical images of Dali's mustache.

The mustache in question is, of course, only an external manifestation, a vehicle around which the project revolved. We find said facial feature in such eye-catching poses as a gravity-defying upward lift (courtesy of Hungarian Mustache Wax), supporting tiny photos of communist leaders, stabbing through holes in a slab of Swiss cheese, and curling around two paintbrushes to form a dollar sign (a fitting self-effacing emblem of Dali's marketing prowess).

Throughout, the images are accompanied by snippets from a trumped-up "interview," a collection of Dali's absurdist quips that add to the general atmosphere of mannered, thoroughly artificial journalistic inquiry.

One image is a multiple exposure, peering through the cavity of his mouth, only to find two other Dali mugs, viewed as though looking up the nostrils.

"Well," the caption reads, "I have a few minor inner conflicts."

In another shot, Dali wears an expression of mad glee, with the caption: "Me, crazy? I am certainly saner than the person who bought this book." The fact is, though, it's all worth the price of admission, from a cultural historical and a photographic standpoint.

Halsman, an esteemed photographer who produced pristine portraits and also got immortal shots of Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Grace jumping, was the right man for the job. What occurred was a rare symbiotic relationship between the wily subject and a portraitist game for suspending the usual detachment.

In the end, the series is both engaging and a little off-putting. Or, as the word-play fan Dali might say, on-putting.

Through these images, Dali appears full of himself to the point where his identity goes beyond that of just Dali, infamous painter of weird dreamscapes.

It's a doppelganger that Dali would no doubt appreciate, and see as a sign of success.


Art Animalia: For something more or less completely different, the companion show now at the Carnegie is an exhibit of dazzling paintings by Robert Bissell, under the telling title "Animals Are Good for Thinking."

The English-cum-Oregonian painter incorporates animals and animal lore into his imagery, in settings that exist between reality and some other, less concrete place.

Often, a sense of child's play informs his aesthetic, as if he's illustrating fantastic tales as yet unwritten. But, always, something surreal this way comes.

These are impressive paintings, large, smartly rendered and strange, begging for interpretation yet resisting easy readings. Perhaps it's best to view them as a child would, with wonder and acceptance of mystery.

Most important, they have a staying power and linger in the mind after you've left the gallery--always a good indication that artistic provocation has occurred.


"Dali's Mustache: A Photographic Interview by Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman," and "Robert Bissell: Animals Are Good for Thinking," through Nov. 22 at Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St. in Oxnard. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fri.; 1 p.m.-5 p.m., Sunday; (805) 385-8157.

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