Artist Jim Dine Brings Fresh Vision To The Familiar

Art review

"Jim Dine: Venus," at Meyerson & Nowinski Art Associates, 123 S. Jackson St., through Nov. 9. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.

When the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opens next month, there'll be a little bit of Washington state on prominent view in the atrium of the architecturally spectacular new cathedral to art.

The Oct. 19 opening of the museum, which was designed by Santa Monica architect Frank Gehry, who also has designed the Experience Music Project building under construction at Seattle Center, is the international art event of the year.

But besides the building's swooping exterior curves and angled interior walls, visitors will undoubtedly notice the three, 25-foot, headless Venus di Milo figures in the atrium. They were created by Jim Dine, one of the art world's most celebrated American artists, and fabricated at the Walla Walla Foundry in Walla Walla.

"The Venuses will be the first things you see inside the museum when you're standing, outside, in front," said Dine, in town this week for the opening of a show of much smaller Venus sculptures at Meyerson & Nowinski art gallery. Dine said that the Guggenheim Bilbao's soaring architecture "is going to wipe out the art that's inside. That's why I painted the sculptures red. I'm nothing if not practical."

The exhilarating, surprisingly classical-feeling exhibition that opened yesterday at Meyerson & Nowinski shows something of the preparation that went into making the sculptures for Bilbao. Along with paintings and prints of Venus, there are a number of life-sized Venus sculptures that Dine says are models for the giant goddesses at the Bilbao.

In his long and prolific career, Dine, 62, has often found images that speak so strongly to him that he reworks them again and again for decades.

In the early '60s, when the Cincinnati-born artist was a part of the exuberantly youthful New York art scene, a Valentine-shaped heart became one of his favorite images. He used it in pop-art-tinged paintings and prints. It was usually rose-colored, a happy heart, an iconic symbol that said something about the new-found freedom of spirit that was part of the '60s.

At about the same time, Dine saw an ad for a man's robe in The New York Times. The robe was personal and intimate. He started painting it in bright, rainbow colors. It became a symbol for himself as artist, a self-portrait of sorts. It also became a symbol of Everyman. The robes remain his most familiar image. The Meyerson & Nowinski show includes paintings and prints of hearts and robes.

The Venus imagery is slightly more recent; he started using it in the late '60s. Among the most famous renditions are the 23-foot green/blue patinaed bronze Venuses permanently installed in the mid-1980s on Sixth Avenue at Fiftieth Street in New York. Dine's goddesses are based on the famous Hellenistic statue "The Venus di Milo" at the Louvre in Paris. One difference is that the classical statue has a head.

"I had a little plaster Venus statue in my studio because it referred to what we all thought of as real art," said Dine. "But the head got knocked off and that was the way I liked it, because then it wouldn't be too specific.

"I'd made plenty of drawings of specific women over the years, my wife and models," he said. "But I wanted to be more general. This way it's about whatever you see in it: mothers, lovers, the female form, the feminine life force."

Despite coming of age artistically in the '60s, and his association with pop art and the happenings of the '60s, Dine has always had strong ties to classical art, and it shows. Part of his fascination with the robe and Venus di Milo comes from his interest in the human body, and his lifelong love of drawing. A few years ago he created a series of drawings based on classical Greek and Roman statues at the Gylptothek museum in Munich, Germany. This fall he is going to Rome for a few months where he says he wants to do more drawing and painting of classical antiquities.

At Meyerson & Nowinski, many of the Venuses stand alone, references to the statue that for centuries has represented an idealized female beauty. But some of his Venuses are paired incongruously with such forms as a flattened cutout of Mickey Mouse, a headless Christian saint, the bottom half of a naked female body. Dine won't explain what all these mean. Having long been interested in psychology, he's interested in interpration, his as well as viewers'. This point of view also helps explain why he can work with a particular image, such as the heart, or robe, or Venus, for 20 or 30 years.

"I always felt that if something speaks to you psychologically, as you get older, it still will," said Dine. "There may be changes in how you think about it but it still interests you."

One of Dine's signatures is great technical skill in a broad range of media. Besides sculpture, he paints, make prints and draws. Among connoisseurs of drawing, he is especially revered for his draftsmanship. In his career he has often made exquisite, loving drawings of such everyday objects as tools. In Meyerson & Nowinski's back gallery, there are also a few of his flower paintings, more examples of his virtuoso draftsmanship.

Also impressive are the portraits of Robert Nowinski, gallery founder, his three children and ex-wife. The portraits are on exhibit in the gallery's library. Nowinski commissioned the portraits several years ago.

"Nowinski was very brave," said Dine. "The portraits look like art brut; they're not idealized. I didn't expect him to take them."