About Kevin Dean

A Skeleton Key to Kevin Dean's Art

by Marty Fugate

Strange as it seems, it's been more than a year since Kevin Dean died. Most of you know this already. Many touching words have been written. (See below for links.) I won't belabor the point or shoehorn in another eulogy. That's not the point of this article, anyway. His ideas are.

To get an idea of what I mean, check out Kevin Dean: Extra Ordinary —a sampling of Dean's art curated by Tim Jaeger and Laura Avery now showing at Alfstad& Contemporary. It's an intimate art space. If you unpacked the ideas inside the art, they could fill an airplane hanger.

Ideas flow through Dean's art like electric current. Once you get it, they light up your mind like lightning. Exhilarating! But not everybody gets it. To speak the plain truth? If you don't know any better, Dean's art can seem dark, gnomic, idiosyncratic and arcane — and don't look to the wall for helpful clues. His work is 100% free of artist's statements.

Actually, Dean was working on one big artist's statement up to the end. A scholarly tome by the fictional "Professor Zeisler" would explain all. Dean's family hopes to finish what he started. For now, a doorway into his world might help. And a skeleton key to open it.

Maybe I can help ...

I'm no expert, but I know a few things about Dean’s art. (Or think I know. He'd be the first to say, "Everything you know is wrong, Marty.") Fair enough. Dean told me most of this, some I figured out. In no particular order, here are the high points. What I think I know. And some educated guesses.

A Kevin Dean exhibit is a Kevin Dean classroom. Dean's art teaches you how to look at Dean's art — and all art, for that matter. You'll learn something, whether you plan to or not.

"Ignorance is bliss," they say. Dean didn't hold with that. He put a great deal of thought into his art and wanted you to do the same. If he tossed you an obscure reference from left field, he expected you to catch it or look it up.

Four tales captivated Dean's mind: Dante's "Divine Comedy," Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and the long, bad trip the 1960s became. Historical or fictional, these narratives had much in common. In Dean's mind, they tended to fuse together.

All this talk of big ideas may sound deadly dull. Dean was funny as hell. He had a black sense of humor, and cracked jokes in the back of the class along with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and R. Crumb.

There's a scene in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" where Allen's character is transfixed by a blinking Jesus in a tacky 3-D poster of the Crucifixion. That scene is a Rosetta Stone to Dean's art.

Dean was transfixed by the Cuisinart of popular culture — the way it ground up sacred icons and secular masterpieces and turned them into disposable, mass-produced kitsch devoid of mojo.

In Dean's counterintuitive way, he tried to put the mojo back. This explains the plethora of cultural detritus in his installations — all those Plastic Jesuses and Mylar Mona Lisas. These debased icons are jarringly funny at first, in a creepy kind of way. But Dean wasn't sneering. He wanted you to see through the kitsch to what the icons meant. It was his counter-spell.

Dean’s art (both literary and visual) was a continuous whole. His individual pieces don’t exist in isolation. Like mosaic tiles, they add up to a much bigger picture.

Dean put both sides of his brain to work. He thought like a painter — and a writer as well. His paintings and installations are part of (or illustrate) an overarching story. It's narrative art, kids. Not in a vague, implied sense. Dean had a specific story in mind. With well-drawn characters and a beginning, middle and end.

Dean was a conceptual artist. Meaningless visual music for its own sake? Forget it. His art was viral. It infects you with ideas. And he hit on a conceptual art strategy nobody else had ever thought of ...

Basically, Dean stood on the shoulders of Marcel Duchamp, did a one-and-a-half gainer, and plunged into the pool of sacred artistic symbols from the Medieval period to the Baroque. Hey, if your art is a delivery system for concepts, it's the logical thing to do. Why build a symbolic shack from the junkyard of the modern mind? A Cathedral of Meaning stands — and it's doors are wide-open.

Dean also embraced post-modernism of the literary variety. Think John Barth or Donald Barthelme. Basically, you hold up a mirror to artifice, not life. Instead of wanting the reader to get lost in your tale, you elbow him in the ribs and say, “This is a story.” Dean loved that gag. He used it in his written stories — and his visual art, too.

Diehard post-modernist that he was, Dean obsessed about the way that artists’ public personae (from earless Van Gogh to mustachioed Dali) and a few stock narratives (artist-as-Christ-figure, artist-as-revolutionary, etc.) framed the way we perceive art objects. As far as Dean was concerned, Andy Warhol was a fictional character.

Tim Jaeger's "Kevin Dean: Portrait"

Determined to deconstruct the whole show, Dean created his own artist persona (aka "Brandon Whitcomb") with a narrative to match. Short version: Whitcomb lost the love of his life in a Kent State-style shooting in the 1960s. He blamed himself. The guilt ate him up inside, infused his art, and drove him to slow-motion suicide via booze, cigarettes and junk food.

Dean took this narrative camouflage to Andy Kaufman-esque extremes. He created much of his art in character. Kevin Dean didn't create these pieces; Brandon Whitcomb did — or so the story goes. Knowing Whitcomb's backstory before you saw these pieces was always best.

Story or not, Dean's art is Dean's art. He knew how to disguise his voice.

But it's always Dean who's speaking to you.



Tim Jaeger's "Kevin Dean: Portrait"