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This artist captures breathtaking rainbows inside the Museum

June 14, 2017 // by Denise M. Reagan

A rainbow doesn't last. As soon as you spot one, the phenomenon of refraction and dispersion of the sun's light seems to disappear.

In his Project Atrium exhibition, Gabriel Dawe seems to freeze a vibrant spectrum in space at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, a cultural institute of the University of North Florida. Dawe's installation, opening July 15 and running through October 29, is the first of three in the upcoming Project Atrium series supported in part by an ART WORKS grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gabriel Dawe with Plexus No. 35 2016
Gabriel Dawe with Plexus No. 35, 2016. Site-specific installation at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Photo by Andrew Weber.

“The Project Atrium series continues to be one of MOCA Jacksonville's signature programs,” said MOCA Director Caitlín Doherty. “We're delighted to receive this exceptional support from the NEA that further solidifies the Museum's passion for working with emerging and midcareer artists, like Gabriel who asks us to pause, contemplate, and imagine a rainbow.”

Using miles of polyester sewing thread, Dawe suspends a prism of colors in mid-air through a series of hooks attached to the walls and ceiling. The installation creates the effect that the atrium windows above are projecting a constant indoor rainbow below. Thousands of strands of multicolored thread dissolve into shimmering saturated hues.

“This color mist alludes to a symbolic quest to materialize light,” Dawe said, “to give it density, so that I can offer the viewer an approximation of things otherwise inaccessible to us-a glimmer of hope that brings us closer to the transcendent, to show that there can be beauty in this messed up world we live in.” 

It is this reference to beauty in Dawe's work that captivated Curator Jaime DeSimone and resulted in her reaching out to him to participate in the series.

“I've followed Gabriel's work for a while now, but it wasn't until I experienced it in person at the Renwick Gallery's 'WONDER' exhibition that I knew we had to bring him to Jacksonville,” said Curator Jaime DeSimone.

The installations

The title of the new work, Plexus No. 38, derives from the word's definition: a network of nerves or vessels in the body. It's one of a series of site-specific works Dawe has installed throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

“It was the perfect name because it not only refers to the connection of the body with its environment, but it also relates directly to the intricate network of threads forming the installation itself, and to the tension inherent in the thread, vibrating with an almost tangible luminosity,” Dawe said.

Fashion and architecture

In the Plexus series, Dawe explores the human needs for shelter and protection, represented by architecture and fashion. Both are used to address physical, psychological, and emotional vulnerability. Through the use of thread, the core component of clothing, he creates a structure at the scale of a protective space.

“By reversing scale and material to create an actual structure made of thread, the sheltering quality goes through a transformation, from protecting the body on a physical level, to soothing the human spirit in a subtle, yet powerful way,” Dawe said. 

Gabriel Dawe Plexus No 29 2014 full
© Gabriel Dawe, Plexus No. 29, 2014. Multicolored thread. Site-specific installation at the BYU Museum of Art.

Exploring gender identity

As a child growing up in Mexico City, Dawe longed to learn the hand embroidery his grandmother was teaching his sister, but he didn't dare ask her because he was a boy. He bristled against traditional gender roles, especially the machismo of western culture, and later found ways to express his desires outside normal social constructs that often rule our everyday lives.

“Eventually, I grew out of that frustration, but the memory of it led me to explore this technique as an adult, and in doing so, to question the many social constructs that we sometimes presume to be permanent, rigid and inflexible,” Dawe said.

Construction process

Visitors are invited to watch Dawe install his work June 26 through July 13 at MOCA Jacksonville. Along with an assistant, and perched on scissor lifts, Dawe uses an extension pole that functions as a giant needle. He describes the process as active meditation, requiring deep concentration to keep count of which hook he just threaded.

“The process of installing a piece like this is very methodical, so it's very repetitive, and it becomes like a zen process,” Dawe said in an interview with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Gabriel Dawe Plexus No. 30 2015 full
© Gabriel Dawe, Plexus No. 302015. Multicolored thread. Site-specific installation at the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ.

His background

Dawe lived in Montreal for seven years before moving to Dallas, where he earned a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Texas in 2011. During the last two years at UTD, he was an artist in residence at CentralTrak. Since then, he has exhibited works across the United States, including the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, as well as in Belgium, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Kinetic sculpture

The Plexus works induce a sort of vertigo by disturbing the viewer's depth perception through the repeated succession of lines in three-dimensional patterns. They approximate the way our eyes perceive rainbows: transparent, fuzzy, part reality, part illusion.

“It really becomes alive when you move around it,” Dawe said. “It almost makes the piece kinetic art, even though it doesn't move."

The works create a hypnotic parallax that can't be fully appreciated in photographs. They must be experienced in person to appreciate the full sensorial experience.

Gabriel Dawe Plexus No. 35 2016 full
© Gabriel Dawe, Plexus No. 35, 2016. Multicolored thread. Site-specific installation at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Photo by Andrew Weber. 

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