Written by: Simonette Berry
Baton Rouge artist Paul Dean is best known for his collages and sculptural assemblages, made through a process he’s dubbed “Punk Rock Dada.” These compositions combine images in new, entertaining ways. His themes range from socio-economic commentaries to art for art’s sake, and they are expressed by juxtaposed images referencing everything from long-playing records to the Renaissance. Dean is an LSU professor of graphic design, typography, and color; he also moonlights as a freelance graphic designer and a DJ. In the past few years, he has expanded his scope to painting. His background in graphics carries over into his meticulous paintings, which often use catchy images, intense colors, and sharp detail. During the month of February, his work will be exhibited at the Baton Rouge Gallery along with Charles Barbier, John Harlan Norris, and Tom Richard.
Dean’s show is “Spectra-Sonic,” a title inspired by the old hi-fi logo that advertised, rather redundantly, Spectra-Sonic Sound. Dean explores one of his ultimate themes: music and images used to describe it. His passion for music runs deep; one of his first “aha moments” was the advent of the punk rock movement. “Spectra-Sonic” is a collection of laser-cut album cover collages. “The record covers I’m using come from over 35 years of obsessive record collecting; it’s about time I put them to some use,” Dean kids. “Two album covers are laser cut with a typographic or purely visual image, and then the resulting pieces are swapped. This is, in a way, a return to some ‘recombinant’ jigsaw puzzles I made almost twenty years ago, combined with some other elements, such as the use of record covers and stereo logos that are also a return to earlier themes. This show consciously relates to other themes I have worked with in the past, but it’s a new combination and a refined aesthetic.” Dean will also show some paintings as a part of Barbier’s adjacent show, “Deep Space.”
Dean started making art as a high school senior in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I had a teacher, Mabel Bullock, from nearby Durham, who was incredibly supportive. Everything I did was wonderful in her eyes, and a week after I made a small plastic and metal assemblage, which I spray-painted silver, she came into class with her newest piece, a glove on a coke bottle, spray-painted silver. I realized I had influenced the teacher, and that she wasn’t just being nice to me,” he says.
Dean graduated from high school in 1976 and attended University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1976 to 1980. He took art classes in college, but mostly for fun, and made collages on the side. He realized there was an interest in them when he sold one to a friend in the dorm. Punk rock hit the world in 1977, and it had a profound effect on the young artist. “This was the late seventies, and punk rock hadn’t solidified into a precise look and sound; it was all about creative exploration, without regard to the rules imposed by authority figures or the past.” Dean also recalls that explorations with psychedelics in the 70s, like with many other artists and musicians in that period, “opened me up to the aesthetic appreciation of life, especially color and form, and joy.”
“There suddenly seemed to be an alternative to the mundane and plodding path of conformity and material wealth that I had been bound to. My interest in punk rock led me to an exploration of its precursors, especially Futurism and Dada, and this strengthened my belief in collage and assemblage and mixed media of all sorts as valid and valuable art forms. My interest in punk rock and “˜new wave’ record covers, especially the Sex Pistols first record, brilliantly revealed that album covers were just ink on paper and were created by real people, not anonymous record companies.” This epiphany later paved the way for Dean’s career in graphic design.
Another early influence on young Dean was a friendship with Gretchen Sedaris, sister of famous essayist David Sedaris and actress and comedian Amy Sedaris. “Gretchen and I were in the same circle of friends, and we all spent a lot of time at her family’s house. Gretchen’s mother Sharon was a remarkable woman who collected art, mainly from the Little Art Gallery at the North Hills Mall in Raleigh. This was not just art in frames, it was art that jumped out from the walls, relief sculptures and ceramic pieces that invaded space and were arranged asymmetrically on every wall in their very modern””mid-70s modern, I guess””house. You couldn’t be in that house and not be entertained by the art. That affected her family enormously””they are now a famously talented family””and I think it touched everyone who ever visited their home. Sharon died of lung cancer in the 1980s, as is recounted in the last essay of David’s book Naked, but I now realize that her aesthetic and the influence of her very creative children steered me toward art before I even knew it was happening. Art was not only fun, it was everything in that house! And Sharon Sedaris’s collection, one that practically jumped off the walls, was a visual suggestion that art did not have to sit in self-contained frames. It could invade the real world, as it has for her children and for me,” Dean says.
Dean made many more collages over the years, often more for pleasure than financial gain. Cutting and pasting together fragments of advertisements, packages, photos, printed material, and even money, Dean crafted his vibrant collages around themes that inspired him. “I worked with money as a theme for while, exploring the difference between money as a material commodity and money as an aesthetic object. I collected credit cards so I could cut them up and put them in my assemblages, and played with the theme of real vs. counterfeit money. Interestingly, I wasn’t paying enough attention to actual money in my real life at this time, and it wasn’t until I was suddenly in debt up to my ears that I noticed! The debt crisis hit the news just as it hit me at home. I have a better handle on things now, though.”
Dean’s themes and sources of inspiration range from the macro to micro. “I am inspired by things that catch my eye, in books or in life, and by my instinct for a particular image or form. I will see something and immediately think, “˜Yes, I need that!’ and then gather it for possible use in the future. I actually don’t try to think about my collages too much. I think that too much thinking up front makes for boring art. And, incidentally, I pay a lot of attention to my dreams. I look forward to my dreams every night, and I enjoy recalling their details over the course of the next day.”
A few years ago, Dean was encouraged by fellow artists Paul Neff and Charles Barbier to explore painting. He finds comfort in collaborating on painted works, which he was able to do in a weekly painting group Neff held at his apartment for many years. “It loosens me up to be able to collaborate on a painting, as we do. The pressure I put on myself to make a “˜perfect’ painting is enormous; it’s actually very stressful for me. So I prefer to collaborate. Collages are, of course, collaborations with the source material. I have made some solo paintings, though.” Both Dean’s solo paintings and collaborations will be part of Barbier’s show at the Baton Rouge Gallery.
“Some of the artists who have influenced me the most are Josef Albers; Marcel Duchamp; Kurt Schwitters; Christian Marclay, whose early work with records was a revelation to me; Andy Warhol and his unsung collaborator Brigid Berlin; and, especially, Charles Barbier. His encouragement and drive and his pioneering style has had an immense effect on me,” Dean says.
Though he still draws on his early inspirations, Dean’s message has changed over the course of his career. It’s still Dada, but now more illuminative than ironic. “Punk rock was largely ironic and it inspired me, but now I believe that irony tends to get missed by the general public. I want to make art that can appeal to and be appreciated by anyone and everyone. I also like to include my sense of humor in my work. I think that art should be, if not out and out funny, then humorous, at least on some level. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m a humanist now; I believe that art should be a positive and enlightening influence on the people who see it.” ✦