Responding to the advent of the camera, Charles Sanders Peirce devised a system for defining things as they exist in reality and the “signs” (reproduced image/word) used to represent them. An indexical sign/representation is one where the thing captured shared the same time/space moment with the representation; the representation and the reality are for all intents and purposes one thing. An iconic sign bears some relationship with the thing represented; and a symbolic sign bears no relationship to reality, is an invention, imagined. Put another way, a symbolic sign has no responsibility to reality.
What has this to do with painter D.J. Hall? Well, quite a lot. Prior to the camera we did not have to have philosophers straighten out our relationship to what we saw. There was no need for such a nuanced system of thinking about the relationship between the things we represent and the things that exist. Paintings, prints, drawings depicted our world and these images were presumptively symbolic. The tightest, most observed verisimilitude--Medieval bestiaries, Dutch landscapes, still lives or portraits were filled with presumptive symbolic semiotic codes--horse flies on flowers stood for the decay of the flesh and the promise of resurrection; oysters for our sanguine selves. Daumier’s Paris, Degas’ prurient dancers, Courbet’s utterly transgressive and (and unrealistic) "Artist's Studio: An Allegory of Realism"--all these realisms prior to the spread of mechanical mass media were understood a priori to be filled with profound social and personal codes.
Today tight realism implies visual copying, and copying suggests the absence of symbol and substance. This is a legacy that hounds our reception of Hall. Her sunning women who lunch, people who leisure in designer glasses, exist for us--by virtue of their photorealist technique--as indexical records of a moment in real time, necessarily and reflexively invoking a snapshot. And if these are presumed to be indexical, by extension they are not (or are significantly less) symbolic--the symbolic being those artful metaphoric, analogic representations of the imagined that speak to us in mysterious syntax of deep things, like what it means to be human, to suffer, to seek, to come apart and back together again.
Hall’s work complicates these two poles and habits of seeing; the confusion between the indexical and symbolic is to this writer what makes her art interesting, and what it is actually about.
Hall makes no bones about working from photographs to achieve this precision. Her skill as a painter is acute--every detail of fabric, every wrinkle is rendered with a precision that shocks, that’s indeed almost machinelike. Her painting process is so rigorous that she often has to wait months between pigment applications.
|But this is where any hint of indexicality ends. The women, the pools, the drinks filled with trinkets, are anything but records of bourgeoisie comfort, or of places Hall has (existentially) occupied. To continue our reference to Peirce, there is no time/space correspondence between Hall and her images because, to put a candid point on it, Hall in all her apparent success and absorption with beauty has never been in the exact same time/space with the oh-so-perfect good life. If anything you might say Hall paints to try to recapture what she has not had much of: certainty, harbor, predictability, the ability to stop and control change. And if that is what this work is about, and I am suggesting that it is, then these are scenes of generic rather than capitalist longing, and they might well speak to all of us if we are willing to listen.
A Palm Springs Museum retrospective tracks the work from the 1970s to the present, and is aided by a show of current work at Koplin Del Rio Gallery. Together the two venues permit a closer evaluative look. In the ‘70s Hall was making images that highlighted blemishes; she even tried her hand at rotund figures, far from the taut pool dwellers we know her for. The pools and pretty people that begin in the ‘80s and continued for over a decade interestingly enough started out as a commentary on, rather than a celebration of our culture of youth, wealth and beauty. Her technique improved so precipitously that its very polish, coming at a time when folks were not wielding brushes, overwhelmed any invitation to considering deeper content. They were read as virtuoso visual postcards from poolside Brentwood. . .it seemed enough to piss anybody off.
There is a repeating visual narrative from decade to decade despite the contrivances of varied set designs, but it is not the one you might think. It is not the story of well heeled Range Rover-ed ladies who lunch (and, as is assumed, can buy art). The repeating narrative is intensely personal, one of loss and longing. Hall was raised from toddler age by a mother with severe mental illness: her life's been framed by too early experiences with serious parental phobias, compulsions, divorce, denial, and the kind of trauma that leaves scars. So the pools are not indexical pools, they are pastiches of memories of her grandmother’s pool where, after tending to her mother, she’d go for brief periods of safety. The ultra happy people do not exactly exist but, like the family carved on Catherine Opie’s back, are emblems of something spied, lost and sought after. That searing, lazy and insipid heat in each and every work (even night scenes such as “Nocturne”) come from a tiny Hall driving to the desert with yet another relative after yet another maternal breakdown and never forgetting the soothing effect of that brilliant climate. Even the Hopperesque light, with but little gray scale between transitions of plane, is a wholly contrived if masterfully believable marker for nostalgia.
In the last decade the work has changed because Hall has, as she tells us, begun to heal. The more recent work at Koplin Del Rio includes figures--still privileged--outside of pools, imbedded in background snippets of random architecture (what Hall wanted to study as a student), passages of still life, and a sense of pastiche more clearly signaling that this art has always been tied to vivid imagination. “I’ve Got A Secret” started with the word “whisper;” it planted the kernel of an idea that Hall could not shake. A random volleyballer at Venice Beach (hardly Beverly Hills) became one model, then there was another model, then storyboarding, collecting of dresses and props, imagining the light, scene directions, dozens and dozens of photos taken and laid out for intuitive culling. The hand from one image is added to the shoe from another to the brow from a third. She adds a window from a childhood memory, and a favored lamp whose voluptuous shape echoes the voluptuous fiction that we finally see: two women in a 1950s setting leaning into each other almost erotically to share some secret not fit for public consumption in the rarefied female experience of the post-war suburbs.
In a world where narcissism--let’s admit it, that is the default position of every single psyche--has to be veiled as high culture, as therapy or as Oprah, Hall’s very public honesty about her trauma, as well as the sorts of images through which she chooses to process human fracture and repair, can and have led to misreadings. But consider this: each work can take months and months to do. Once finished, the work has been known to take some critical heat for reasons I have noted. That said, one cannot imagine three decades of such work done for simple fun and profit (it is true, the well heeled love the surface read). More accurately, this is a career spent making highly personal, pretty brave allegories ostensibly showing “the haves” (often looking vacuous for a reason), but symbolically peering behind having and getting to the sutures--Hall’s and our own.