featured gallery for August 2007

Jerome Caja (1958 - 1995) and David Cannon Dashiell (1952 - 1993)


The Frank Moore Archive Project is emotionally and physically overwhelming. I liken the viewing of the archive to visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., or to viewing the AIDS Memorial Quilt on one of its last tours in the early '90s. There is reverence, some humor and maybe some surprising names of artists who are ostensibly prisoners or casualties of a war that one may not have necessarily known they were fighting. The overall feeling is gravitas and anger.

In considering the subject for this exhibition I did not want to give in to preconceived ideas about whose work I would highlight. I attempted a system to view the archive from A to Z. The system would be simple and would bring some objective distance to the subjective and emotional work of making curatorial choices in the face of so many compelling visual arguments for inclusion. My system began with framing a concept for the show with a title and then matching every letter of the title with the first letter of the last name of each artist chosen for the show. While the choice of artists would be subjective, my choices would be ameliorated by the objectivity of my system. It would be a Dadaist game that could end in an interesting display of work culled from a massive library. The title of my show would be Fuck Me Fuck You Fucked Up, a title somewhat representative of my personal feelings toward the continuation of the international HIV/AIDS crisis. It would allow me to work with the images of some of my favorite artists, such as Arnold Fern, Robert Flack, Joel Carlson, David Krueger, Mark Morrisoe, Frank Moore, et al., but the system represented some problems. (Yes, I know that there are a lot of problems with viewing the rapacious black plague of our times through the lens of a Dadaist language game, but I needed some sort of device to harden me enough to do my job. I mean, I needed something to help me through the crying.) First there was only one artist in the archive whose name begins with the letter "u." This problem could be avoided by spelling the exhibition title so that it would read F*ck Me F*ck You F*cked Up, but the fact that Jerome Caja's and David Cannon Dashiell's works were not represented in the archive posed bigger problems.

I wondered at the fact of their absence. I wondered at the kind of history of queer art or AIDS-related art that would not mention Jerome Caja and David Cannon Dashiell. These two artists, unlike few others, served as cultural role models for me and those who marched through the streets of early '90s San Francisco holding hands, having impromptu kiss-ins, screaming fuck you to Jesse Helms, dressing in black and staging die-ins in the middle of San Francisco's overly commercialized Market Street. Their work struck much closer to home for San Franciscans than the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz or Keith Haring because Caja and Dashiell were our homeboys. That is, although their work had been made in San Francisco, in their short lifetimes it had not been packaged in LA and then sold in New York and they lived and worked among and alongside us. I could not fault the staff of Visual AIDS or the executors of the estates of Caja and Dashiell for not reaching out to each other. Like people living with AIDS, artists and AIDS activists are in a daily fight for their lives and livelihood due to lack of funding for their important work. Eventually, I am sure that the estates of David Cannon Dashiell and Jerome Caja would have joined the Frank Moore Archive Project, but I decided to speed the process along so that I could use my stint as a Web gallery curator as a platform to introduce two artists whose forceful, singular artistic achievements bridge the gap of early misunderstandings about AIDS and its relation to autobiography and creative output.

On Caja and Dashiell:

Jerome Caja and David Cannon Dashiell found their mature artistic voices in the environment of the eighties and nineties in San Francisco. For decades San Francisco had been known as a breeding ground for cutting-edge artistic practices developed outside of the influences of dominant markets for art in ways that force us to question the validity of the inside of the art world. San Francisco was the birthplace of radical movements and groups such as The Summer of Love and drag performance artists The Cockettes. A community of artist-run nonprofit galleries and exhibition spaces was supporting art with little to no economic incentive. Caja and Dashiell both received early support from places such as New Langton Arts, Southern Exposure, Artspace, Art Lick, Kiki, The Lab and eventually The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the University Art Museum, Berkeley. Artists, writers and curators forming that community included Nayland Blake, John Caldwell, Kathy Acker, Rex Ray, Peter Edlund, Wayne Smith, Robert Riley, Laura Brun, Rick Jacobson, Glen Helfand, David Bonetti, Cliff Hengst, D-L Alvarez, Jeanne C. Finley, Sono Osato, J. John Priola, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Lawrence Rinder, Renny Pritikin, Robert Glück, Jeannie Weifenbach, Loida Sorensen, Brett Cook, Judy Moran, Jon Winet and Lawrence Andrews, among many, many others. It was a particularly vital time in the life of San Francisco art (and really, someone should write a history about the era because there is no way I can mention all of the extraordinary people here.) While I believe that David Cannon Dashiell and Jerome Caja received much of the same support from the artist community, Jerome also had a lot of support from underground queer meeting places and clubs such as the Crystal Pistol, the Stud, the End Up, My Place, Baby Judy's, The Café Flore, the Top, the Eagle, My Place, Chaos and Club Uranus. Jerome often performed at Uranus as a go-go dancer and as a participant in the Miss Uranus Contest. He was also a stunning, sexy, frighteningly beautiful spectacle at queer community events such as the Folsom Street and Dore Alley Street Fairs.

Jerome Caja was born in 1958 and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, along with 10 older, bigger brothers. Since he was a fragile, sickly child he developed a sharp wit that he used throughout his life as a defensive and sometimes offensive weapon. He had a Catholic upbringing and his religious background and bits of autobiography would always play a part in his work. He received his initial artistic training at Cleveland State University then came to San Francisco to study at the San Francisco Art Institute. He studied with Richard Shaw and Sam Tchakalian, switched from ceramic sculpture to painting, met his long time friend Charles (whose ashes he used in paintings after Charles died in 1991) and received his MFA in 1986. I met Jerome in 1991 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's opening of Facing the Finish. He was one of the stars of this group show of emerging California artists and he graciously approached me because he had never seen me before and was interested in a new face among what had become an all too familiar crowd of drag-queen groupies and conservative blue-haired art patrons attending openings to get a kick out of him.

Jerome was a tall, thin (really, really thin), stringy haired man who often appeared at his openings in the character of an outrageous drag performer. But such outings were reserved for when he was not painting. He was prolific, uncompromising, and obsessive about his artistic method. He knew his work was good. He used it to pay his dentist and he used to entertain himself. He said, "'Cause that's what my painting is, it's me talking to myself, telling jokes, or making a statement, or losing my temper, or whatever." In the installations of his paintings raunchy, outrageous, bloody, hysterical images of phallus worship, rape scenes, eyeless saints (St. Lucy recurs even as Jerome was losing his eyesight), murderous clowns, and child abuse mix with images of birds, bears, worms, eggs, Christian themes, art historical references, and philosophical language games. This was Jerome's way of allegorically sharing his dark thoughts on human relations. His concerns for human fragility are reflected in the various ephemera that were his materials, i.e, coal, bottle caps, bits of lingerie and lace, plastic ashtrays, nail polish, liquid eyeliner, cosmetic glitter. While he was dealing with his approaching AIDS related death he was very aware of the pain and complications caused by the prescribed treatments. It was his opinion that he didn't actually begin to get sick until he started to see a doctor about the disease. It was a confusing time for Jerome and he bravely kept painting and exhibiting and dancing almost up to the end. Jerome died in 1995 after his work had been exhibited at SFMOMA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art and the Berkeley Art Museum. His work is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's Archive of American Art, and a monograph titled Jerome After the Pageant was published in 1996.

David Cannon Dashiell was born on July 4, 1952, in Tokyo, Japan. He was the grandson of author Dashiell Hammett. Dashiell's father was a cartographer for the United States government and lived, primarily, in South East Asia from the American occupation after the Second World War until the height of the Vietnam War. Dashiell thus spent his childhood abroad, returning to the United States in 1968 when his father felt East Asia was becoming dangerous for non-military Americans. He spent the next several years moving from state to state before finishing his high school years in Florida.

Dashiell attended the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California, where he worked with John Baldessari. From CalArts he received a BFA in 1974 and an MFA in 1976. After graduation, Dashiell moved to Los Angeles and worked at an architecture firm. While establishing himself in the field of graphic and industrial design, Dashiell sought deeper exploration of his sexuality. Identifiying San Francisco as an ideal setting for such a life setting, he moved to the city in the early 1980s.

He resumed his studio practice in the context of the spreading AIDS epidemic, and with the sense he might be infected with the virus at a time before HIV testing was available. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Dashiell was a productive and respected conceptual artist; he focused on themes related to the AIDS epidemic, including sexuality, disease, medicine and apocalyptic symbolism. His works were exhibited at many galleries across the country including Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, and the New Langton Arts in San Francisco. In 1993, he received the prestigious Adaline Kent Award from the San Francisco Art Institute, which occasioned the completion and premier of Dashiell's masterpiece, Queer Mysteries.

Queer Mysteries is a larger than life-sized mural in the round that mutates the imagery of the Dionysian mural at the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii into a contemporary social statement regarding sexuality, gender, segregation, self-pity, disease, self diagnosis, cannibalism, cloning and perfecting of the body. Queer Mysteries is painted in vibrant, contrasting and complimentary colors and imagery. Early 19th century imagery of a cannibalistic, homosexual male society mingles with futuristic images of a green-skinned lesbian society. Expressive of the non-linearity of memory and self-image, Queer Mysteries graphically displays Dashiell's interest in the problems and possibilities of autobiography while avoiding the idioms of self-portraiture and traditional narrative. Queer Mysteries is a very smart work that I think is heavily influenced by Dashiell's interest in post-modern literature and his own extensive autobiographical writings.

David Cannon Dashiell died from AIDS on 30 June 1993, just a few days before his 41st birthday. His works are included in many private collections as well as the San Francisco MOMA, University Art Museum Berkeley, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

I dedicate this exhibition to my dear friend Nick Debs, who has continually championed and supported AIDS activism and artistic practice for several decades now. Thanks to Sono Osato for her assistance with the Estate of David Cannon Dashiell. And thanks to Gallery Paule Anglim for assistance with the Estate of Jerome Caja. I also dedicate this exhibition to my dear friend and colleague Reynold Pritikin and the staff and volunteers of Visual AIDS, especially Amy Sadao and Nelson Santos.