At first, it's hard to tell what makes Dana Dart-McLean's ink, gouache, and graphite works so mesmerizing. They don't typically dazzle with masterly production values. In fact, there's often a willful naïveté to her approach—as if she's painting as automatically as a daydreaming student doodles in the margins of a notebook. Similarly, there's seldom a discernible conceptual conceit; her images work on a far more intuitive and naturally associative level. Instead, Dart-McLean's work succeeds in the same way the best art does. It conveys emotion in a less readily communicative way, picking up the slack where language falters.
Juxtaposing abstract and representational images, these busy works demand scrutiny to digest their information. In "Haters Drift, Lovers Stay," the artist piles overlapped images as if each were pinned to a bulletin board. Photos rendered in skeletal graphite sketches share space with re-created images of Dart-McLean's own paintings. On the one hand, "Haters" could be read as a kind of map of the artist's personal history, in which family snapshots (and the fading memories attached to them) give way to her own art. Plaid and cosmos motifs occur, and compartmentalized images are thrown together in a collage-like collision.
One of the show's best pieces—and perhaps least character- istic—is titled "Fitzgerald's Grid" and, apparently, was inspired by Tender Is the Night. Per its title, the top half is dominated by a grid in which some of the squares are colored in at random. The effect is a kind of mock order; not much care is taken to keep within the rigidity of the lines. In the lower half is a bare-bones sketch of lovers lying on their sides. But the subjects aren't easily seen, as Dart-McLean buries them under a plane of yellow and blunt brushstrokes of blue, green, and rose. The artist's meaning is as muted as the two figures, who may or may not be characters from the Fitzgerald novel. But the play of colors and the tension between the ordered top half and looser, more expressive lower half is, in a word, lovely.
In small A's first major exhibition of a local artist, Dart-McLean demonstrates that she's made impressive strides since showing with White Columns at last fall's Affair at the Jupiter Hotel. Not only does her work stack up against the gallery's imported talent, but it proves she's one of Portland's most promising young artists.