Power of Repetition: Jim Dine Skulls Pack the Chazen

Power of Repetition: Jim Dine Skulls Pack the Chazen
''Love and Grief'' by Jim Dine

Perhaps the best—and nearly unavoidable—way to start an exploration of the new Jim Dine artwork at the Chazen Museum of Art is with the six-foot-tall sculpture of a human skull sitting outside the front doors. Roughly textured, with dark eye hollows, the bronze form serves as a fitting harbinger for the sixty-six prints, paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures of skulls that await inside the museum.

“I knew him.” Jim Dine Skulls, 1982–2000 is the result of a generous gift the prolific artist has given the museum. The exhibition reveals not only Dine’s fascination with skulls—one of the iconic images he’s returned to again and again throughout his career, along with hearts, tools and other icons—but also the breadth of expression he’s been able to achieve by revisiting the subject.

Both colorful and black and white paintings, drawings and prints, many large in scale, line the walls of the expansive main-floor gallery. Some feature only skulls, while others also incorporate additional imagery such as hearts, bodies, hands, trees, birds or words. A few are studies for later works or multiple versions of a composition. Certain pieces feel foreboding, while others evoke calmness, sadness, playfulness and even joy.

In the center of the gallery, “The Plow” is a painted steel and wood installation in which another enormous cracked and weathered skull sits atop a sprawling farm implement.

On the far back wall, “Politika,” a giant oil, enamel and charcoal work features an abstracted, almost impressionistic scene of a skeleton and skull amid a swirling backdrop. Two axes are stuck upside down into the canvas. And two colorful prints flank the work, the skulls within them facing “Politika” as if paying respect to it.

In the adjacent gallery space, works are presented in a more intimately. Included among them are a series of inkjet prints of skulls in a variety of settings—with figurines, in plastic, by chalkboards. A trio of works, named “Poem from Me,” ends with the following chalk-scrawled words: “From where I sit, your heart still eludes me.”

Hearts, bones, life and death—the elements of Dine’s work certainly reference mortality. Yet a pleasant surprise is that this exhibition skews neither coldly medical nor heavy handedly moralizing nor grotesquely morbid. Rather, Dine’s skulls are somehow comforting, reminding us of what we all are underneath.

“I knew him.” Jim Dine Skulls, 1982–2000 runs through August 17 at the Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit chazen.wisc.edu.