I am reminded of a reviewer who described an artist’s work as “queer as in gay, queer as in odd.” I like the word “queer” here, not so much as a reference to sexuality – though a number of the characters in Romano’s works seem quite comfortable with their nudity, and seem to be displaying sexuality in a variety of forms – but in how “queer” can also mean peculiar or bizarre, and even touching on that Jungian idea of the uncanny or eerie. Or, as a verb, how it can “spoil” or “ruin” something.
I’d apply that to some of the images presented in this solo exhibition where some of the signifiers and ‘actors’ – and what they’re doing with and to each other – deny any simple reading. Romano seems to intentional “queer” a direct or facile reading of his works: just what exactly is that dog with a human face, spotted like a Dalmatian, doing, as he / she / they stand behind the two nude figures (one joyously pissing) while wearing nothing but hats that match the police cars parked in the background? They all make eye contact with us, perhaps defying, perhaps inviting. And that is only one aspect of the eerie nature of the piece titled AC/AB.
Progenitors One, Progenitors Three and Progenitors Four (with removed expressions) all share similarities, but also have odd touches. Progenitors Four, for example, has the “expressions” removed by having the faces of the crowd (all nude, all with similar haircuts, all lounging or sitting in a relaxed, informal manner) all blank red flatness, amid the thin linear monochrome quality of the scene. They do have faces on their torsos, however. There’s a camaraderie to the Progenitors in all the scenes within which they appear together, sometimes with arms around their shoulders, sometimes sitting comfortably all leaning against each other and into each other. I admit sensing a wry amusement in the figures that Romano shows us: they seem to be asking “yes? And how may I help you?” I sense a similar detached amused irony in AC/AB, as, after all, we’re the ones watching not just one nude couple pissing on some plants, but two, as there’s another pair further back in the composition.
Progenitors, for the record, can be defined as “a person or thing from which a person, animal, or plant is descended or originates; an ancestor or parent.” Alternatley, it can also be “a person who originates an artistic, political, or intellectual movement.”
Other works have equally amusing titles: Defective Scene One, Defective Scene in Rag Time, Bad Bet Scene and Couple with Spectre. That last one shows a couple that seem to be forcing their faces together into one, less than kissing, and yet a demonic figure looms above them, replete with red skin and horns. Its unclear if the Spectre is jealous, wanting to split up the facefuckingfornicatingfacesucking or if instead he / she / it wants to push their own visage into the melting pot of kissing.
There’s an aspect of these works, both aesthetically and formally, in execution, that remind me of the works of Marcel Dzama, from Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge. But there’s something a bit more obviously perverse here, in Romano’s works: Dzama tended more towards the fantastical, less human, and so the nudity and presence of Romano’s figures seem more real, more like portraits. There’s another contemporary of Dzama, Attila Richard Lukacs: his work is nothing like Romano’s, but I mention it here because the late writer Timothy Findley used Lukacs as a model for a character in Headhunter, Julian Slade. At an exhibition of works by Slade that are provocative and disturbing, one of the main characters is both horrified and fascinated. Another visitor to the gallery opening approaches this first man – Kurtz – and after some distasteful dialogue, stuns Kurtz by saying that everyone “watching” these paintings keeps deluding themselves that it isn’t themselves in these paintings, but someone else, oh no, I’m not that perverse. And, of course, as Findley shows in Headhunter, we’re all lying to ourselves about our perversity…or our willingness to watch odd characters pissing inappropriately in front of dogs and cop cars, in a blank flat white washed landscape.
Dan Romano’s Kicking Cadaver is a strange, yet evocative, exhibition. Go see it at the Niagara Artists Centre at 354 St. Paul Street, in downtown St. Catharines.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.