Work

by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Mark Chavez-Dawson

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Who is Mark Chavez-Dawson? Visitors to this, his first solo outing in Scotland, will have trouble working out where this artist begins and his cast of alter-egos end, and could be forgiven for wondering if ‘Mark Chavez-Dawson’ is yet another, ad­mit­tedly thinly-veiled, alter-ego of one Mark Dawson, artist.

Chavez-Dawson is the guiding hand behind two char­ac­ters - the Gallery Guard and Robin-Nature Bold - and the creator of a third, Deacon Brodie-Morgannwy, a character performed by Glasgow-based artist Jean-Pierre Lapeyre (a name which may or may not be a pseudonym for someone else).

With a confusing cast of personae in place, Chavez-Dawson weaves further fictions. According to an excerpt from the artist’s notebook, the name of Robin Nature-Bold was revealed to him in a waking dream, which featured Andy Kauffman, Andy Warhol and Peter Sellers engaged in a rather unsavoury sex ritual, watched over by Janis Joplin and Valerie Solanis. Robin Nature-Bold’s per­for­m­ance piece, Whatever You See Are Your Own Demons, They’re Not Coming From Me!, is based on the unlikely tale of one Deacon Brodie, a squatter in Anthony Burgess’ attic who lived on a diet of egg whites and played his Casio keyboard in­ces­s­antly, dis­rupt­ing already tense ne­go­ti­a­tions between the author and Stanley Kubrick over the filming of A Clockwork Orange.

With this anecdote in mind, and having procured a Casiotone 101 keyboard from a later tenant of Burgess’ lodgings, ‘Nature-Bold’ enacted a ritu­al­ist­ic per­for­m­ance intended to ‘invoke the frequency of Brodie’. This took the form of ‘Nature-Bold’, a shaman or voodoo priest dressed head-to-toe in white, bashed out im­pro­vised melodies on his keyboard, to a tune based on repeat viewings of a scene in the 1932 film ad­apt­a­tion of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde. While he performed, candles were lit, and egg whites scrambled. The detritus of this pseudo-magickal event remains in the gallery, the keyboard bound up in white fun fur, Nature-Bold’s white pinstripe jacket and leather gloves, ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ painted on the knuckles, are suspended on lines of wire, stretched out to form the Christ-like pose of a tri­um­phant musician leaving the stage.

The Museum Guard, meanwhile, carried a rather gaudy gilt frame around Edinburgh, stopping off at galleries, where he offered re­p­res­ent­at­ives of each the chance to sign the frame and inscribe it with the name of their favourite work of art. Silent throug­hout his journey, ne­go­ti­a­tions were handled by Deacon Brodie-Morgannwy and the frame now hangs on the Embassy’s wall, enclosing a video pro­jec­tion of the journey-per­for­m­ance.

Of all the pop culture icons, seminal texts, artistic practices and invented rituals that Chavez-Dawson folds together in his arcane per­for­m­ances and con­vo­luted back­st­or­ies, one name leaps out: Andy Kauffman. The late (or living, depending on who you ask) comedian’s outre cast of alter-egos - the foul-mouthed club comic Tony Clifton, Kauffman the mis­o­gyn­ist champion of inter-gender wrestling, Kauffman the naif, feeding his audience milk and cookies - are not precise matches for Chavez-Dawson’s merry band, but the present­a­tion of suspect facts and fleshed-out fictions as two sides of the same coin, true or false according to the in­clin­a­tions of the audience, is Kauffman to a tee. And, like Kauffman, Chavez-Dawson is either very funny or deeply in­fur­i­at­ing (again, depending on who you ask). In­fur­i­at­ing because his work shrugs off questions that it is almost always worth asking of art: What does it mean? Is it any good? It is im­pos­s­ible to tell whether Chavez-Dawson is serious, or even half-serious, in his bid to link the art venues of Edinburgh by taking a psy­cho­geo­graph­ic tour of them, or if, in hiding behind the Museum Guard persona, he taking the mick out of the sort of artist who makes this sort of work. The more ritu­al­ist­ic, and more obviously hokey, efforts of Robin Nature-Bold are similarly evasive. The audience, caught up in the serious business of Nature-Bold’s musical attempt to summon the spirit of a fiction, can easily be forgiven for taking the events unfolding before them at face value, stifling giggles perhaps, but engaged non­eth­e­less. This might be the response Chavez-Dawson as Nature-Bold is aiming for, flagging up the wil­l­ing­ness of the con­tem­por­ary art co­gno­s­centi to leave any skeptical tend­en­cies at the gallery door. Or he might be engaging in an ‘honest’ in­vest­ig­a­tion of the effects of adopting a persona on his practice, or using that persona to bind together disparate cultural tropes, or he might just be having enormous fun at his own, and our expense.

This un­cer­tainty, the im­pos­s­ib­il­ity of settling on a single in­ter­pret­a­tion of Chavez-Dawson’s mult-layered working method, let alone the work he makes, is likely to split gallery-goers into two camps. Some will be put off by his per­man­ently raised eyebrow, and others will be willing to join in and enjoy the joke, whichever punch-line they pick. I’m keeping a foot in both camps: Chavez-Dawson, if that is his real name, is amusing, confusing and in­fur­i­at­ing, all at the same time. Whether this is a good thing or not remains open to question.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 1st, 2008.