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Serious fun with Miles Debas

Miles Debas, Flying Janus, 2022, ink, acrylic paint, enamel, Plaster, oil paint and collage on linen, 25 x 34 inches

Contributed by Liz Scheer / In his new exhibition “Sundowning“at Freight + Volume, Miles Debas utilizes a mixture of collaged and sculptural elements to create works that are at once whimsical and intellectually provocative. The press release says his hanging sculptures adhere to a “dream-like logic,” and that’s an apt statement. The bits of cloth and color are like snapped-off impressions – pieces of waking life – that cohere into a whole that implies but falls short of legibility. Describing a painting as “dream-like,” though, suggests that it is surrealist. With their floating symbols and jewel-toned colors, Debas’ constructions could certainly be so characterized. But there’s a way to read these pieces not as representations of the unconscious but rather as odes to moments of agreeable miscommunication: instances when conversation that leads nowhere in particular is nonetheless intensely satisfying.

Miles Debas, Loudmouth Soup, 2022, ink, acrylic paint & collage with sculptural elements – aluminum, plaster, gold leaf, enamel
36 x 24 in
ches (Image: Marissa Graziano)
Miles Debas, Matchstick Monarch, 2022, ink, acrylic, enamel, plaster and collage on muslin, 40 x 31 inches

“Sundowning” refers to a phenomenon that affects those with dementia (the artist’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s). “At a certain time of day when the quality of light starts to change something happens to people who are suffering from dementia,” Debas explains. “They might have hallucinations, they might be confused. Even a sort of change in the ability to recognize oneself” could occur. “What that implies to me is a multiple consciousness that shifts over to a different function.” The artist’s preoccupation with the dialogue between completing inner voices has shown up in some of his sculptures. Conductress, Dyad, and Flying Janus borrow imagery from the two-faced Roman god who reigns over duality.

Miles Debas, Give Pleasure, 2022, ink, acrylic paint, enamel, plaster, watercolor and collage on jute and muslin, 32 x 36 inches

Debas’ latest works visually conjure tunnels and passageways with long patches of painted canvas lying adjacent to pieces of aluminum, plaster, and drop cloth. Their contiguous shapes do seem like the happy collision of different narrative registers. In L’Entretien,for instance, a line of black and white stripes connects two figures on opposite sides of the canvas. Above and below it, pink and green swatches of canvas almost meet; a small space between them exposes blue underpainting. As philosopher John Searle has observed, language is premised on how the mind relates to reality. Debas’ collaged elements might be understood as the wordless impressions and intentions that hover around the direct through-line of language itself.

Freight + Volume: Miles Debas, “Sundowning,” installation View
Miles Debas, Silver Cloud, 2022, Ink, acrylic paint, rice paper, and collage on jute and muslin, 45h x 56.50w inches

The artist’s recent works are also experiments with surface. Most of his colors are flat and bright, and he enlists an array of mixed media to develop texture on his works’ upper layers. It can be tricky to pinpoint what qualifies as a surface, however, when a two-dimensional collage doubles as a three-dimensional hanging sculpture. In Color in the Closed Eye, goldleaf flowers jut out, giving the impression that the rainbow painted behind the flowers is sinking into the background. More broadly, the “down” in “Sundowner” could mean a sun setting on a horizon (a two-dimensional plane) or swallowed into the sky (a three-dimensional one). For Debas, a work’s surface is continuous with its depths. At the same time, these pieces reach out to communicate with the viewer. In some respects, this effect is literal, as with the plaster hands extending from works like Korovyev and Loudmouth Soup.

Miles Debas, Korovyev, 2022, oil paint, ink, acrylic paint, plaster, collage on canvas, 32.75 x 25 inches
Freight + Volume: Miles Debas, Sundowning, Installation View

Ambiguity pervades Debas’ work. In Big Bully Sun, for example, the limbs that emerge from the corners of the frame could signal joyful abandon or anguished entrapment. Another salient quality is inscrutability. While his surfaces retain a runic quality in their frankness, their bright color and opalescent sculptural elements also echo a very remote benevolence: they’re beautiful but emotionally impenetrable, like the smile of an ancient deity. They say what they mean while obfuscating their interiors. In this sense, the work suggests the impossibility of fully successful communication between painting and viewer. A painting says something, but we filter our reading of what it conveys through our own subjective experience.

Miles Debas, Big Bully Sun, 2022, oil paint, acrylic paint, enamel, plaster and collage on canvas, 42 x 60 inches (Image: Adam Reich)
Miles Debas, Bloom, 2022, oil paint, collage, gold leaf and mixed media on canvas, 71 x 54 inches

We can’t really know what anyone really means, in art or in life. We can only hope, as Tibetan filmmaker and writer Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche puts it, to “successfully miscommunicate” with one another – that is, to improvise moments of connection when our own narratives seem to line up.  This experience, he elaborates, is what’s known as “having a good time.” The uncanny interplay between gravity and levity that distinguishes Debas’ recent work is arresting and a bit unsettling. Crucially, it is also fun.

Miles Debas: Sundowning,” Freight + Volume, 39 Lispenard Street, New York, NY. Through November 12, 2022.

About the author: Liz Scheer is a painter and writer living in New York. Follow her on Instagram at @liz_scheer_

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