Skulls have become such a commonplace motif these days that they seem drained of their meaning. From garish Ed Hardy T-shirts to faux-badass toddler clothes, they're everywhere, neither sinister nor edgy.
Artist Jim Dine, known for his extensive reworking of a limited set of motifs (tools, hearts, bathrobes), can be exempted from this insipid trend. For decades, Dine has immersed himself in skulls. He's painted, photographed, etched and sculpted them; just name a medium, and Dine has probably tried it. Dine has donated 67 skull-themed pieces to the Chazen Museum of Art, including one that will be displayed permanently outdoors. Viewers have a chance to see the gift in its entirety in the exhibition "I Knew Him": Jim Dine skulls 1982-2000 (through Aug. 17).
Now nearing 80, Dine spent part of last year working on an edition at Tandem Press, the fine-art printmaking studio affiliated with the university. During that time, he was given a tour of the expanded Chazen, which opened its beautiful new wing in 2011. That prompted Dine to offer Chazen director Russell Panczenko this gift. It's a significant one given Dine's stature in contemporary art.
To me, the exhibition's strongest pieces are the two sculptures, one of which is located outside on the building's University Avenue side. A 1,500-pound whopper in cast bronze, the sculpture, titled Ancient Fishing, stands out for its oddly precarious composition. The skull seems massive and solid, yet it's positioned on a sideways-tipped pallet and random boards that are also made of cast bronze. Dine has also included a hammer, a nod to another favorite motif and emblematic of his respect for manual labor.
Inside, this same skull form reappears in the sculpture The Plow. As Dine explained during a public talk on May 15, the skull from The Plow is the original carved cottonwood form used to make the molds to cast two other sculptures, including Ancient Fishing. When those pieces were done, Dine burned the wood, giving this particular skull its haunting, charred quality. Positioned atop farm equipment, it seems even stranger; the plow's blades echo a grim reaper's scythe. It's magnetic and menacing.
Some of Dine's prints offer a more literal, anatomically detailed approach to the human skull, like A Side View in Florida, an etching with hand coloring from 1986. Dine likes working large, even when making prints, and this is no exception. This is a bold, monumental skull in profile set against a deep blue ground.
Other notable pieces include The Red Jar, a 1998 porcelain vessel whose sides have skulls crudely painted in iron oxide, like the color of dried blood smeared with dirt. For the most part, Dine's photographs seem like the least successful aspect of his skull obsession; there's something heavy-handed about them. For what is most appealing about his approach is the weird, unspecified middle ground many of his skulls occupy. They're neither banal decorative elements nor straining-to-be-deep metaphors. They're harder than that to pin down, leaving a necessary space for the viewer to step in.