In this exhibition of eight exquisite new paintings and drawings (all works 2013 or 2014), Dan Attoe installed an anomalous, 6-foot-tall neon bloodhound head accompanied by the statement “I know more than you think I do.” The saggy Sherlockian implied some mystery the viewer could not grasp. Clearly, Attoe’s subjects are psychological: the graphite-and-ink drawings offer disjointed, free-associative material; the paintings, seamless oneiric tableaux.
Each drawing features a tiny narrative vignette amid cryptic motifs and phrases irrationally juxtaposed, like elements in a dream. Children includes a picture of two figures in a forest clearing; a candy-colored gingerbread house conjures Hansel and Gretel, and a caption warns, “There are little silvery whispers all around you. They all know something that you don’t.” What could it be? The problem worries Peter Rabbit, who works assiduously at his tree stump desk but counsels, “Stop making games that you’ll never be able to solve.” A silly dog pants after actress Charlize Theron, present in name only, while a bare-breasted woman in bunny ears grins at a word that is also the drawing’s title. The charming absurdity belies terrible archaic fears: that your father could abandon you, that a bad mother wants to devour you, that she may be a beauty and (like Theron in her Aileen Wuornos role) a “monster,” or kind to children and, most disturbingly, sexy with father.
Attoe lives in Washington State near the Columbia Gorge; the forest settings in his paintings thus constitute a kind of day residue, making him seem a regionalist who functions psychically and symbolically. The bathers wading into the leafily overhung water in the oil-on-canvas River Bank in Summer are perfectly plausible on the manifest level, yet Attoe inscribes his picture “There are ghosts,” and we realize that this is no mere sylvan idyll but an immersion in the waters of the unconscious. (In a cut-away view into the stream, some greenish fishy creature appears to lurk; its actuality is entirely uncertain.) Don’t search for the lofty location of Swimmers at Waterfall anywhere in the Northwest. It exists solely in Attoe’s imagination, in an origin myth, of mountainsides parting like thighs upon a uterine plunge pool where embryonic swimmers drift.
Freud understood certain landscapes in dreams, especially those with wooded mountains, as representations of the female genitals, and dreams of going into the water as distortions of coming out—of the amniotic fluid. The serenely beautiful Swimming Pool at Night 7 distills a similar fantasy, one of generation and prenatal life. Here, beneath stars and a full moon, a lone figure floats in a radiant pool, flanked by father and mother on the wooden deck bordered by stately pines. Vacant chairs in the background suggest a genealogy: one pair on each side for grandparents, one central pair with table, red fruit or flowers, and trusty/lusty dog for the imagined scene of the parents’ communion. The mystery for all of us once was “Where do I come from?” Those who preexisted us know. Silver-whispered, this universal family secret forms the latent content of Attoe’s deeply compelling paintings: the haunting enigma of life itself.