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The Secretive Self-Portraits of Jeffrey Dell at the John Sommers Gallery

By Jeffrey Lee

AUGUST 17, 1998:  The best pictures in Concurrent Address, Jeffrey Dell's solo show at UNM's John Sommers Gallery, are literally multilayered. In these big mixed-media self portraits, the image underneath is partly concealed, partly revealed by an overlying sheet of translucent paper, which is also drawn, painted or printed on. They're like autobiographical versions of those anatomy transparencies in high school textbooks, where you see first the skin, then the muscle, then the internal organs. But you can't see them all at the same time. If self-portraiture is about what the artist shows and what he keeps hidden, Dell's work is a playful and provocative game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don't.

For one thing, while you get to see the artist's feet, hands, haircut, back, butt and belly button, you don't see his face. In several of the pictures, like Gathering and Dispersing, the image is of Dell, with his back to the viewer, busily absorbed in "creating" the picture. Most of these pictures are big, 5 or 6 feet high. One full-length nude photograph of Dell is augmented--and effectively fig-leafed--by a peak-roofed shape, painted over the image so that it begins in front of his face and extends downward, in a long column, to between his feet. The peaked-roof shape, repeated in several pictures, is also an inverted open book--whose contents you can't see.

Dell's use of media is open-ended and restless. In his layered pictures, he begins with a black-and-white photograph of himself and alters it with combinations of drawing, painting, printing and collage. The midriff of Stool, in which Dell crouches at the picture's top, gazing down at the eponymous kitchen stool at the bottom, is cut across with a horizontal band of grotesque, mask-like block-printed faces. In several others, a thick, tarry smear of ink unravels into barely recognizable images--fragmented faces and hands that peek out from behind the gunk.

Because they are often applied around, rather than over, the figure of the artist, these additions can push the foreground--the figure--into the background. It gives some of the pictures a deliberately disorienting, dizzying feel. This is true of Gathering, where it's hard to tell whether Dell, with his back turned on the viewer, is "working" on the remarkable, collaged surface or getting ready to dive into it.

Jeffrey Dell has exhibited at the Lucy Gallery and at Site 2121, but Concurrent Address is his first one-man show. It's a thoughtful sequence, with an exploratory approach to craft and a sense of humor that takes the edge off the show's potential narcissism. Dell is worth looking at--and worth keeping an eye on.


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