Comedy Divine

Dali’s Divine Comedy. At UCSB’s University Art Museum. Shows through December 3.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

Salvador Dali gives me hives. Really. If I see another one of those posters with the melting clock on it, I am not going to be responsible for my actions, which is why I made a point of avoiding the Dali show when I was recently at the UAM. What with all those side hallways out there and so forth, though, I did end up stumbling into a delightful exhibition of wood engraved illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy by an unfamiliar artist.

This particular artist is infinitely more versatile than Dali ever was. Oh sure, if you know Dali’s work you will recognize how this artist has borrowed some of Dali’s themes, almost exclusively in the depictions of hell. But the crutched figures, the melting biomorphs, and the limbs emerging from rock seem appropriate to the infernal subject (as opposed to being the subject of an entire career). And those themes are taken up with a light hand, woven seamlessly with heroic (think Blake) and grotesque (think Bosch) figures engaged in their eternal struggles.

Dali’s slickness is often annoying. This artist, on the other hand, is so raw as to be endearing, his colors spilling and pooling across the paper. And unlike Dali, with his dreary monochromes, this artist is capable at times of an ecstatic use of color — kind of like John Singer Sargent watercolors on mild hallucinogens. He even has room in his oeuvre for charm, as “The Delightful Mount” evinces, with its tiny red figure on a faraway plane, neatly defined with one-point perspective, a tree covered hillock in contemplation. Here the surreal has gone underground, and re-emerged as whimsy.

When it comes to portraying purgatory, and particularly paradise, this artist shines, evincing a talent for beauty that you’d never associate with Dali. “The Joy of the Blessed,” for example, a print from the Paradiso series, is a vision of lavender and magenta seraphim with teal wings against the mauve, indigo, and cerulean corona given off by a central, coral figure that they are all venerating. The forms are both backlit and pale, other-worldly.

The Dali I know is a one-trick boor who only impresses college freshmen. This artist — as evinced by the large selection of prints from a series of 100 — is endlessly inventive. At times his ability to pick a narrative moment makes the cantos he is illustrating seem biblical, and he matches Dante in terms of visual metaphor. He certainly isn’t the Dali I know.

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