< Speculators

Bill Dane: Fraenkel Galllery

Bill Berkson

“Well, it’s a fantasy problem,” says a Sunday comic-strip frame on the shop-window partition in one of Bill Dane’s photographs. The window-dressing view (Shreves, San Francisco, 1982) shows a big teddy bear mummified in funnies and sporting a pair of Chinese plates, each with the same image of an exotic garden with butterfly-less artifice, and you realize the whole shot’s about getting to heaven and finding it just like home. 

The stuff of this world, as Dane finds it, is preternaturally pictured, dolled up, or in one way or another on display. Repeatedly, he used the photographic sheet as an exemplary void, and presents whatever fills it as a dubious simulacrum, a scale-model pleonasm of human desiderata and bypassed hope. The implication is that these conditions meet their parallels in daily life – in the cramped glitz of restaurant décor, or in the imploring eyes of a two-headed goat (in Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, San Francisco, 1984). The vulgarity of things treated thus isn’t the point, nor is their functional status in the stratagems of marketing; if anything, Dane shows that these things don’t matter, they’re empty, but we invest them with such rage for efficacy, for magic, that they must be real and therefore count for something.

In the 15 or so years since he switched from painting to photography, Dane has gone some lengths toward refining an idiosyncratic technique. The intensity and wit in his black and white pictures get their punch from a few basic formalities. Dane likes sharp in-camera editing and alignments of detail along a constant central axis. (Off-center details he plays close to the edge or as disquietingly abrupt notches in the corners.) His formalism isn’t self-aggrandizing; you don’t notice it at first so much as later, when you wonder what has kept your attention drawn to the photographs’ peculiar sights. Transformation of peculiarities is less the issue than the achievement of poignancy through their exact placement. The method isn’t foolproof and neither is Dane’s wit; there are some foolish-looking duds and cartoonist one-liners, like New Yorker jokes. His recent work has a greater, more impetuous energy spread across the frame – an effusion partly due to training on closer shots and otherwise on the consistent wackiness of his motifs.

Most of Dane’s views are of things simulated to begin with (effigies, toys, relics, painted skies and paper seas), though some are of natural things (an enormous, veering eel) in artificial settings (a dim aquarium tank), and one (a deer at the bottom of a shallow pond with a burst of light at its breast) is of death plain and simple. The sense that most of these things aren’t going anywhere is foremost; it’s alleviated only by the occasional semblance of motion in the photographer’s reflected flash, which becomes Dane’s stamp (and which in the aquarium picture makes an eerie ripple, like moonlight, on the tank bottom). His soft, slow touch seems to want to coax the life in his life-simulating subjects to declare itself and thereby to answer our gaze. One image in the show, Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1985, works just that way. We see a floppy orangutan draped head forward over the back of a life-sized stuffed zebra in a window crammed with other, smaller stuffed animals and potted plants and trees. It’s a tender, loaded, dumb, pathetic, hilarious mess-a clear enigma-and the ape’s glassy stare just about acknowledges our awareness of it.

Where does Dane himself figure in this, aside from being somehow at home with these arrangements? There’s something mock-classical about his style, but it’s not spiteful or condescending; in fact, it projects little in the way of an attitude save the rudimentary one of choice and fascination. Our puzzlement and dismay notwithstanding, the photographs show a care for the measure of particular life in things (deployed in whatever unlikely, silly splendors) as against their contingent use and even their meanings. Dane has cast himself as a surveyor of ceremonies stuck deep in our wishful, ornamental glut, our fuss.