Craig Dongoski at whitespace Gallery, Atlanta, GA
June 25 – August 6, 2022
review by Harrison Farina
T E S T A M E N T, as the title of Craig Dongoski’s latest solo exhibition suggests, is a proof that eludes scientific objectivity. The Atlanta artist has long addressed these inexplicable leaps in nature, such as the expressivity of primate gestures or the eidetic content transmitted by the sound of mark-making. Exploring these phenomena artistically produces a counter-knowledge to what can and cannot be discerned by scientific method. If Dongoski’s art proves something, what exactly does it prove? The works in T E S T A M E N T, which are mostly ink-pen drawings and collage works on paper, get us closer to an answer, as viewers of the show witness a layered culmination of an experimental art practice that has been developing for over 30 years. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.
Given the current political climate, it makes sense that we see many contemporary artists using their art to prove the moral validity of political slogans. Dongoski’s work is about values. His work affirms the dignity of the human by pulverizing the ego to a point beyond or before the individual; this is how values become universal. The works in T E S T A M E N T are anonymous and familiar, turning to timeless motifs such as sperm, handprints, skulls, and triangles. These symbols tell a story about sex, death, and trauma that the viewer of T E S T A M E N T connects to their own experiences as they walk through whitespace gallery. The works in this show feel connected to those in I’m Never Coming Home: CommaBox Vol. 3, a group show curated by the collaborative Comma. In shedspace, an outdoor gallery attached to whitespace, I was moved by the objects in CommaBox that play on the idea of a “go box” for doomsday preppers. These artistic renditions of small objects – a pocketknife, a toothbrush, a bag of pills – arrest our judgement as we come to feel the immense vulnerability that we all share. Like these small essential objects, Dongoski’s work utilizes a common language to pull back curtains of sedimented normalcy.
Dongoski’s pedagogy is key to understanding his art. The works in the gallery and the classroom are inseparable, as he brings the most serious and experimental aspects of his studio practice to his teaching. Artistic values – like tolerance of boredom and love of process – are what the artist-teacher strains to communicate to his students at Georgia State University’s School of Art and Design. Students are challenged to recognize the sanctity of the mark through a processual arrangement of basic components – circles, dots, and lines. We find these same basic components in T E S T A M E N T. As these complex works show, there is reward in struggle. Dongoski encourages his students to shift how they view their work: he calls it “moving from the microscope to the telescope.” “To see a World in a Grain of Sand,” as the poet William Blake, echoing Homer, put it. On the microscopic scale, the iteration of basic marks may at first feel like a fruitless waste of time – until the element of Time itself is revealed through the inscription of a labor. The telescopic view introduces the element of Time and is a testament to the magnificence of difference in replication.
This movement – from the microscope to the telescope, and back again – characterizes the curation of Dongoski’s latest show, which contains two series of drawings in two separate rooms. The first room contains 12 drawings in the ZODIAC series plus the large work Dust and Dreams, and the second room contains the latest series of work called TESTAMENT. The movement from the first to the second room evokes a new medical astrology. Medical astrology is predicated on a bridge between two realms: the fixed stars above and the human body below. The ancient Babylonian priests first made this connection as a technology of healing that could predict the course of disease and treatment. Using the 12 zodiac signs to diagram the body (Aries the head, Pisces the feet, etc.) became a longstanding practice in medicine, especially during the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Today, astrology has made a huge mainstream resurgence as a tool for understanding our lives and relationships – especially among the younger generations. We are still Anthropos, meaning “one who looks upward.” Our prehistoric ancestors sought order by constellating the night sky, creating a calendar; we still draw meaning from the patterns in our lives through stories of origin and destruction.
In the first room of the gallery, we are in the vast expanse of night sky. The drawings in the ZODIAC series are constellations, situated in a coordinate system of amplifying lines that have become a distinctive mark of Dongoski’s work. The lines look like waves, striations, or mushroom gills; they are drawn with black ink-pen, keeping us rooted in universality. The artist refers to the laboriously slow process of drawing these lines as “tics” – a kind of compulsive repetition of a gesture that introduces organic difference in their repetition on smaller or larger scales. These lines belie the cliché that “time is non-linear.” Time-lines stack in a meandering process of condensation and rarefaction that effects an expanding temporality. The 12 drawings in the series manage to cap their infinite expansion of a time-line, resulting in a distinctive rendition of each zodiac sign that tells its own story. In Zodiac IX, a root-system of fine lines balloon above punctuated attempts at stasis: a symbol, a handprint, a point. In Zodiac XII, this movement is matched by an ascendence of pink handprints that fan outward in solar rays. The elementary activities of the classroom (mimicking the motifs of early art) – finger painting, handprints, simple shapes – are given credence and returned to as primordial potential. Dust and Dreams, the largest work, illuminates the swelling of Time that is, in the words of Georges Bataille, “continuously on the verge of explosion.”
The second room brings us to a psychedelic cave interior. Whereas the ZODIAC series uses color sparingly, the TESTAMENT series is a rainbow explosion where color disintegrates universality into subjectivity. The swelling time-lines have become systems of veins and nerves bounded by a human form. These compositions are renditions on the “Zodiac Man” – diagrams of the human body according to the signs of the zodiac. The Zodiac Man (or Homo Signorum, man of signs) is void space, around which a microscopic coordinate system of dots, circles, and lines coagulate to form the parts of its body, its primate gestures, simple shapes, and mazes. These figures look as if they have been composed of dust – miraculously or meticulously – which is a testament to Dongoski’s persistence. Sacred as stardust, the mark in its most basic form reminds us of our cosmic origins. Whereas ZODIAC primarily makes use of lines, TESTAMENT is composed almost entirely of points. Composition from these elementary forms – point and line – were posited by Kandinsky as “rhythmic life.” The figure of sperm is such a composition, recurring frequently. In Zodiac II a sperm floats aimlessly; in Zodiac III it makes a single penetration. More sperm can be found in Testament III and VI; here they have reached their end in a point. The shape of sperm represents the movement of a point through time, with a kind of comet’s tail, revealing motion as a metaphysical principle uniting the heavens and the deepest recesses of the mind. First the human identifies forms in the night sky, but then the night sky is found inside the human: moving from the telescope to the microscope.
The two series exhibited in T E S T A M E N T, for all their distinctions in scale and scope of composition, are fundamentally united. Both express an ethics of slowness and stability. In a world of instantaneous content, the artist who utilizes a slow process has a unique ability to slow perception; this is the only hope of creating lasting meaning. Despite being on paper, Dongoski’s work is a meditation on the petroglyphic mark. Looking at these works, I find myself confronted by the question of void, emptiness, and negative space. The Self Portrait is unsettled by the empty hole just beneath the childhood artist’s heart. How do we relate to this hole? Is emptiness the blank canvas upon which human meaning is projected, or is it instead already a mark in the truest sense: a double-negation of matter? But the questions asked by Dongoski’s art are not primarily concerned with a science of artistic composition, and this is to the artist’s benefit. The art poses questions on a deeper level: what is the meaning of our birth, our death, and the struggles of our life – and since we cannot escape these conditions, remaining trapped in them like a maze, do they mean anything at all?
On the final wall of the second room, we find three works that are not part of either series; they attempt a kind of resolution. These pieces retain a different perspective, falling somewhere between the telescopic and microscopic view; they initiate a perception more naturally aligned with human experience: they are trauma(tic). These works are heavy and filled, they look unable to bear any more weight. A Thing Locked in a Cage Puts All Heaven in a Rage features an upside-down horseshoe (a symbol of bad luck, depending on who you ask) resting as a crown upon a screaming skull. There is a hole in its throat: emptiness is the echo of a silent scream. It’s All in the Breathing I Suppose makes use of the same horseshoe-crowned skull attending a banquet of personal demons; this piece is energizing despite its dark background. Colorful paper cutouts of circles and half-circles overlay both works as patchwork codes, giving trauma its final word; in this sense, the message is gloomy and hopeful, a testament to transcendence. The anomalous Black Candle, consisting solely of a waxy image of a candle screen-printed onto a photograph of the artist’s kitchen, reduces the compositional process to a minimum. All I see in this piece is Death in mourning, but in the bottom right corner, spermatic drips of ink advance toward the Grim Reaper, as if to comfort the specter.
The recurring images and themes displayed in T E S T A M E N T lead us to ask, once again, what exactly do these works prove? They prove a fundamental commonality of all matter, and the human ability to create meaning out of flux. The testament is the process of art-making itself, which educates the viewer about our embryonic origins in the universe and in the work of art. As human beings, this is our work. Because the labor of Dongoski has been placed – and this is impossible to deny – it remains the task of the viewer, a common task, to ask where they find themselves in these works. Perhaps these works are unable to be understood, but that is not the task. The work shows what is beyond scientific comprehension – Time, Void, Birth, Death, Return – yet their act of showing, of testifying, connects the unfathomable universe to our personal struggles with trauma. The way forward – a difficult way, but not without fruit – is work. That is what these works testify: before the question of freedom can even be posed, these works show the fruits of our labor, and we are emboldened to keep working.
Harrison Farina is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Villanova University
Craig Dongoski on instagram @pan_trog