Reading Carl Dimitri’s Paintings

Dear reader, this essay is organized into sections; each section is titled after the series of paintings it talks about. All of the paintings referred to below can be seen here.



The paintings in this series are made of openings in color and line. I think of the fistulas that form in the body of a diseased organ as its fluids seek a way to release themselves from disease—biotic tunneling, interiors forcing their way out: do we need to talk about “interior” and “exterior” anymore? There is something biological about these portals—they have been formed organically by their surroundings, which seek a way to gasp; soon they will speak. Finding a way out by going through. For me there is sickness here, and with it a wish, several wishes, to disappear.

The contours of the portal in “Multiverse” are the most inescapable for me. Dimitri builds them with lines that are being pulled by a great force into the hole that darkens them. The color changes because of the light on the surface of the hole. Although this is a portal, there is still a surface, which is a potentially inescapable thing the painter contends with by varying color, line, light. The surface is a limit and also it is a starting place: where you go to form a way out of color and light and line. You, viewing, can be pulled into this thing—I mean your body.

???????????????????????????????“Taking the cure”—the words are there at the bottom of the canvas because, being composed of lines, they are attracted to the hole. It presses its power against them; the words are minimized. But they still speak, forming a caption for what the portal could be saying. In astronomy a multiverse is “an aggregate of existing matter.” That is a lot of things to be. This portal has achieved that density. Our universe is only one small part of it.

Another painting in the “Portals” series, “Stuck Out Here On the Gaza Strip,” can be hard to face because of all the deaths that come through it. The monolith that might be named “St. Mary” bends in a way that is living, albeit heavily. It is bearing so much weight for the sake of religion. This makes it holy in a way that will not be recognized by any state. It isn’t a way into or out of anything—I won’t make it a totem. To sanctify anything in the midst of war and hate is to create yet more territory on which to fight. No, I want to let this shape be like a beetle—small, hard-bodied, alive: but not included on the lists of the living or on the lists of the dead.



One thing about the graph and diagram portraits is that they help me recognize how I am instantly familiar with the form graph—I don’t need to be told, Okay, here is some information organized into a thing called a “graph,” what it entails is two axes, each one with a different variable, and some dots and lines showing the relationships among the variables. I see a graph and instantly recognize the shape of it as a container for information, just as I see a crude drawing of a box with a triangle on top and recognize it as a container for people, a house. These shapes are part of the lexicon of signs we—people living in 2014—are fluent temp 1880-2010

In “World Temp 1880-2010” Dimitri shows us something doubly devastating—by way of the relationship between the painting’s title and the line it depicts (a relationship we fluently and easily recognize), he shows how drastic a change our planet is undergoing. But the painting goes beyond reiterating information that we have already seen in the news: it catches us just as we are doing what humans do better than all other animals—thinking abstractly, sussing out relationships—and shows us just how much good our prowess has done the planet and ourselves. The canvas can’t contain the line as it continues to rise.

This painting is a trap wherein we can recognize that what got us into the trap—our fluency, our mental cleverness—does not have only positive effects on our surroundings. We can see just how limited our cleverness is, and we can also see that we are going to have to rely on this limited, flawed thing to repair as much as we can of the damage it has already done.



What are these eyes I see looking out from slablike layers of paint? What is it they are holding—a cat? It seems about to leap out from the medium that is barely holding it back. But I know that an animal is transformed as soon as it is concealed—it gains new agilities, loses its loyalties to those who know its name. Its name becomes synonymous with the shape of the mask. Here, it is called “Pozzo,” which is also the name of a character in Waiting for Godot. But it may be that the barely-discernible outline of a cat is the real mask, and the white slab is the one whose true identity is being concealed.

pozzoI know that the eyes and the white slab are both made of paint, but paint often isn’t the material that gets closest to the viewer: the painting’s appearance, which is something else the painting is made of, is more insidious, and convinces me that the things I know about painting might actually be false.

I love it when a thing can make me question the assumptions that seemed to give the thing its context and meaning, so that I have to see the thing itself, the thing apart from concepts and context. It can be spooky, seeing a thing this way—I am alone in a realm untamed by conventions, and I don’t know what this animal, or whatever it is, is about to do. This situation—being alone outside of the named—is a mask over reality. All of my assumptions are lurking beneath it, ready to leap at me.



under monopoly all mass culture is identical“Under Monopoly All Mass Culture is Identical”: the painting’s title describes a phenomenon like heat death, in which there is no more free energy for life. There are no more differences to exploit to do work. Everything is equal now: nothing can live. The painting depicts life-giving differences—in color, shape, texture—being assimilated by an agglomeration. What we are seeing isn’t the aftermath yet, but the point in the process where we are now: of bringing about a state that cannot sustain life. Therefore the image seems to be of some sort of mechanism, while the context—the history of painting, which is part of human history—can still remind us that the process is not yet complete, we might yet have some agency to stop it.

But do we really, and will we? The painting can’t tell us that (although the fact of the painting is heartening); what it can do is encourage us to consider: What does it mean to be beneath something whose edges you cannot see, whose roads you do not own? The means of acquiring a little bit of freedom do not belong to you, nor does the freedom, not even after you’ve paid for it (because you have paid: tacit agreement that you have accepted its edges as your home). It is freedom of someone else’s design, permitted to you for someone else’s profit.

The paintings in “Under Monopoly” are constrained—by that design, by the desire to break from it.



herculaneumThrough repetition a single voice can harmonize with its hells. It can be one solid word made of many chatterings, the way a forest is from a distance. In the “Unified Field” paintings the power of color is expressed through figures and around figures. These are not “color field” paintings but paintings that happen on a plain where actual grasses grow. These are field paintings of colors, which often take the shapes of things, such as butterflies and flowers. “Figure” and “background” inhabit the same reality and cooperate: they do not compete for a name but share one space as if it were a name. Sometimes words attempt to break through or simply to join in the sharing, as in “Herculaneum.” In this painting I can see a tendency shared by several of the paintings in this collection: to render the same thing, the same name, in two primary styles, with individuals of each type having unique markings. There is the shadow of a grid behind the butterflies. Grids can create the appearance of order among data that is in fact random and unordered, making messy content seem tended to, less confused, by the guise of a neat process. Here, though, if the grid is having any effect on the content it could be seen to be ordering, it’s the effects of having been created by the content—a shadow cast by the butterflies. The grid came after, not before, its data, which makes it seem a little more reliable, visually and conceptually, even if it is so faint it’s barely a breath.

objet petite aIn “Objet Petite A” there are two boxes to consider: the yellow one behind the form of a sculpture we might remember seeing an image of in art history class, and the form of a body recognizable as being a depiction of a body in our own time: maybe it is dancing or doing yoga. The yellow creates a field within the larger field of the canvas; it lets my eye try out a different way of seeing how these figures act and interact. There is another box, the rectangle drawn around one of the objets. What is special about this one? This one is special because it has a line around it. Also, it bears a resemblance to the yellow field. I am tempted to try to single it out for other, esoteric reasons, yet I think Dimitri is playing with that tendency. He understands how much meaning we are taught to ascribe to a line. And maybe there are other reasons to give more weight to this objet than to the others; but probably not. That line might be the weightiest objet in the painting.

cosmic foxA little bit about “Cosmic Fox.” There’s something disturbing happening here, as if a movie  executive has designed an image, a red, triangular head, to market the fox as a hero—as if the animal no longer exists. Something is being covered up with emblems: the facts, probably. In a few places we can read text. “APROZINE CONTAMINATES WATER SUPPLIES.” These are shouts that can barely be heard over the red of the fox-emblem’s head, which is starting to seem like a sign posted to warn of a nearby industrial hazard. There are a few places where it’s clear the text has been obliterated. The white fox we see toward the bottom of the painting embodies the obliterated words—it looks frightened, as if it is missing most of itself, especially a viable context in which to live and be healthy.



In the series “Traffic,” Dimitri uses existing signs for pedestrians as surfaces for new messages that reorient the reader/citizen—away from the movements of commerce and toward movements of imagination. The realm of meaningful communication here is the place where bodies pass, conveyed by their own energies, so they are moving slowly enough to see the writing that is trying to talk to them. This realm is a place where poverty (powerlessness) can be addressed for what it is: a condition not of personal failure but of institutionalized greed. Sometimes a person has to write on the surfaces of the institutions themselves, not on canvas, in order to point directly to where the sickness dwells.

Messages like “NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOOR BOARDS” and “IGOR THE CHEAP CHEMIST” and “SWASHBUCKLING SEA CAPTAIN” and “I’M CURRENTLY WORKING WITH MICE, RATS AND HUMANS” bring words such as “Dadaist” to my mind. Like the artists who have been associated with that word, Dimitri looks for ways to transform the subtly and grossly wearying (the same traffic sign seen so many times, we no longer notice what it says; the same language used so often as stock phrases, we can no longer hear what we’re really saying) into the odd and incongruous, prompting thought and imagination. This gesture alone might not seem political, but the gesture is not alone: it has context—it is happening out in traffic, out in commerce, out in the polis—and its context is political.

It is more obviously so in the series “Shipwreck.” Along the sidewalks of Providence Dimitri has located canvases that were already speaking mutedly. These are the sides of buildings that say they have been forgotten by The City, that dreamy place of citizens and their economy, and have been relegated to being described by words like “blight” and “eyesore”—places in the language that permit further neglect—or even worse, are not even noticed despite being richly layered with stories of effacement. “My Boss is a Horrible Person” says a white smear beside a drawing of a woman’s head in “Boss,” this on a brick wall behind which the woman could right now be working for the horrible person. Flowers in the “Broad St” series are painted on a boarded building that has been vacant as long as I have known this city. The flowers call attention to the vacancy not only as a site of ongoing neglect, but also as a site of ongoing potential: Something good could be here, they say, and for the moment, is. “PEOPLE ARE A LOT OF WORK” says a concrete pillar of an underpass in “Statement.” The pillar would know: all day, all night, it does the work of holding us up as we pass over. The “Keyhole” tags transform unopenable doors in alleys—doors leading to the back rooms of businesses that give the lie to facades that appear to be welcoming us into spaces of shared access and equality—into doors that can be opened with giant keys, the kind found in children’s stories.

???????????????????????????????Graffiti—its look as well as its purposes—is also found in the works that are more recognizably paintings. The scrawls in “Hopi Wind Prophecy” (part of “Graphs and Diagrams”); the layers of images, textures and colors in the works of the “Abstracts” series that make it difficult to talk about these paintings in terms like “figure” and “ground” (because everything we see is both figure and ground—these paintings surround); the way, in the paintings of “Dandelion Farm,” the media adhere to each other like wheatpaste posters to the surface of a city. The way the paint appears to have been applied quickly, though not hastily, because the artist’s reflexes are primed for escape (from the authorities, from clichés), and to have been scratched, because a painting is just another surface the sounds of the silenced will pass through.

Evelyn Hampton lives in California. Her first book, Discomfort, will be published later this year by Ellipsis Press. is her website.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.