January 3, 2005

The Wonderful World of Jacob Dahlgren by Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt

Since Warhol immortalised the packaging of everyday life, from Brillo boxes to Campbell’s cans, new products cannot be launched without an intimate consideration of the means by which they are presented. Nowadays, one can only imagine the teams of people dedicated to the shapes of bottles for mineral waters and perfumes or the metallic exoskeleton of mobile phones and mini disc players. Packaging is part of a product’s all-important brand identity, as vital as its logo.

Against this backdrop, Jacob Dahlgren delights in surfaces without being superficial. In what can only be perceived as a deliberate move away from the high-tech, there is something faintly nostalgic about the objects with which Dahlgren chooses to work. He deals in the patterns and curves that a stack of plastic cups makes and the spirals that form if their handles are turned around. Dahlgren evokes a childhood fascination with brightly coloured objects, charting a journey of time spent with mother, from the cotton reels of the haberdashery department to the clothes pegs of the washing line and back to the towers of Stickle Bricks and Lego.

There is ostensibly a relationship between Dahlgren’s works and the movement led by Anthony Caro that emerged from London’s Saint Martin School of Art in the 1970s in that they function as sculptures that have rejected the plinth and are much more than the sum of their parts. They are a colourful parody of the repeating forms of minimalist sculpture. In his short novel The Mezzanine Nicholson Baker describes a lunch hour in which the protagonist observes the minutiae of life, wondering why his two shoelaces have broken within 24 hours of each other and whether the environmental claims made by manufacturer of the hand-drier in his corporate washrooms could be substantiated.

With this in mind and through its visual quality, Dahlgren’s work can also be read as painting but, rather than asking the audience to spend time with the painting to determine something about life, Dahlgren has spent time observing the world around him and wants to communicate its components to the viewer. The most impressive painterly example of this is Dahlgren’s work entitled Glamour, comprised of a shallow metal grid overlaid on a cerise pink wall of varying intensity. The effect is of shimmering beauty that changes its character as the viewer moves around it and the grid intervenes to expose or obscure the colour. When looking at work from a post-conceptual tradition, it is rare that a visceral response is elicited and yet this piece provides the kind of pure visual pleasure that we have come to associate with Barnett Newman. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by signs and symbols, Jacob Dahlgren’s carefully considered aesthetic is able to penetrate the defences of even the most brand-cynical members of the Wallpaper* generation.

Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt