Dwight Cassin: Oronsay
On ViewArt Cake
March 9 – April 17, 2022
In his 2019 book The World of the Crusades, the historian Christopher Tyerman explains how the aesthetics of the crusades lacked uniformity: “In painting, sculpture, architecture, manuscript illumination, songs, poems, plays, clothes, food, weaponry, heraldry, the art of crusaders drew technique, inspiration and styles eclectically from prevailing cultural ambience.” For the impossible schema of “crusader art,” social and religious content appears as a primary language. This art, it seems, expressed form in beautifully cannibalized terms: hybridized at the root (radix), and laundered through many cultural spheres.
Clearly Dwight Cassin, who studied religion at Bowdoin College, is aware of the layered, globalized history of the crusades, and has reflected on how their memory does more than simply “meet” contemporaneity. In this way, his debut solo show, Oronsay, is a literate constellation of sculpture work that, at its best, extends beyond gesture-obsessed Orientalisms and into the realm of cultural and spiritual reanimation. Here, the artist seems intuitively aware of how the art of the crusades is a key to which a broader point is unlocked: that the medieval period was a time-cycle defined by the realization of imperial limits—in more than just two cardinal directions, where a conjectured East meets “West.”
Populated by past and present imaginaries, Cassin’s sculptures—all made of repurposed wood—are sites whereat idea and visual diction are not covalent; rather, they contest among each other along discrete planes of figuration and activity. (The elongation and pattern-making in Granada Bruñida , edifying some kind of proto-Rorschach, is just one example.) In this vein, the sculptures are not mere simulacra or earmarked references to past conflict. They are instead vested with untold stories as relevant to the viewer as they are to history. As such, even from a short distance, the sculptures subtly discomfort, so pregnant with pneuma and possible interpretation. Sculptures of such a quantity and scale as these could easily lapse into the relatively safe territory of mere geometry. Instead, they invite comparisons not only to the impossible creatures of mythology, such as in Hanna’s Kip (2021) or Girolamo (2022), but moreover draw attention to themselves and to the wood substrate’s very own frangibility and (seeming) softness.
To say the works in Oronsay speak for themselves is not to say they reveal their sacred mysteries too readily. A work like Doonerak (2020) manages to be both iconic and aniconic simultaneously, flattened in perspective with four long limbs and a cruciform stature. It is perhaps a gesture toward the complexities of religious depictions of life and spirit, variously sacrosanct or prohibited among the denominations of Abrahamic faith. Doonerak’s amalgam of faceless features are endowed with the spiritual essence that the deep sea-foam green acrylic and gouache bring. These elements similarly defend against one-dimensional appraisals that might highlight recentness of construction over the poignancy of material decay, or vice versa, when in fact the sculpture appears to measure both.
The title Oronsay itself seems to index the archipelago of small Hebridean islands that each bear the same name. These Avalonian sites witnessed their own kind of religious contestation amid colonization during the high medieval period. The name “Oronsay” may derive from the Old Norse Örfirisey, meaning “island of the ebb tide.” Doonerak itself is an island—green as it is, calling to mind driftwood—as are the other pieces in the show in their own ways, all forming a slight arc within a sea of subtle imagery.
At Oronsay’s relative center is the sculpture Alors En Danse (2022). Curiously placed, it is the most confrontational of all the sculptures, and one of the few apparently pieced from multiple sources of wood. It is a complicated array of almost-organic structures that further serve to bridge the binary of pre-Linnaean domains (i.e., animal and “vegetable”). Graced by pin nails and layers of silver spray paint, Alors En Danse’s figure challenges ready perceptions, calling to mind an illusionist version of iconographic Assyrian figures known as lamassu. These colossally sculpted winged bulls or lions with male human faces were placed at palace entrances and served as protective deities, each encompassing generative stories of life within them.
Oronsay itself possesses a broader story. Partly inspired by—and in dialogue with—Wael Shawky’s 2015 solo exhibition at PS1, Cabaret Crusades, Cassin’s current show at Art Cake likewise presents cultural residues entwined with a personal history. It inspires reflection on a fabled time, one before East met West. The truth, of course, is that the two never “met”—rather, they were always entangled within trans-cultural nodes marked by continuity and rupture. Oronsay thus reminds us of the stories we tell ourselves about history, our own and “others.” After all, those living during the Middle Ages could not have had any awareness they were in the “middle” of anything. Many, in fact, believed they were living at the end times.