At least, that’s the usual concept. Dawson has tweaked it a bit, responding primarily to the building and its furnishings. The most striking element in his installation is a mobile of five dangling chairs, modeled on ones at the Phillips, that hangs in the spiral staircase near the main entrance. The chairs are made of the same brass used in the stairway’s railing, so they connect to the space while intruding into it.
“Ghosts” also includes two more chairs, mounted on landings and motorized armatures so they swivel continuously, and a mechanized set of brass rods that gently sway from side to side. The latter is an homage to a stripe painting by Washington colorist Morris Louis, although that may not be immediately obvious.
Dawson currently lives in a rustic corner of his native land, but he knows the Phillips. In fact, he worked there during a sojourn in Washington a decade ago. He lived in Washington for two-and-a-half years, while his wife worked at the Australian embassy. Dawson devoted the time to what he calls “self-directed research or slacking, one or the other,” speaking by Zoom from his farm, roughly midway between Melbourne and Canberra.
Dawson was joking about having been a slacker. While in D.C., he set up a studio in an unheated one-car garage and bought a metal lathe from an online seller. He used it to build sculptures whose rotating arms held rockets that charred circles into the wall as part of a 2012 show at Hemphill Fine Arts. (He also had a 2011 show at International Arts & Artists at Hillyer.)
Meanwhile at the Phillips, Dawson worked as an art handler and carpenter. “I spent a lot of time looking at the backs of paintings and how they were made,” he recalls. “I don’t know what’s on the front of those paintings, but what’s behind them is fascinating.”
The view Dawson got of those pictures was, in a way, the one he prefers. “I do have to admit I’m not particularly good with paintings,” he said. “I’m not in awe, as much as I probably should be, of the collection.”
What the artist appreciates about the Phillips is its architecture, which fuses three very different buildings, and the resulting interiors. “I see it as a really interesting space,” he explains. “The way you to get to experience a painting at the Phillips is, in my belief, unique.”
When Dawson first pitched an “Intersections” project, it focused entirely on the museum’s interior, as embodied by those Arts and Crafts-style chairs. “That’s a hard sell,” he concedes.
So he added his metallic rethink of Louis’s “Number 182,” a 1961 canvas whose multicolored vertical stripes partly overlap each other. The machine-oriented Dawson became interested in the picture’s technique when he realized that Louis had made it with the aid of a tool: gravity. The pigments were poured onto the canvas and then the colors’s own weight guided their paths downward.
The way the painting-derived sculpture works is a playful commentary on his own disconnection from abstract pictures, Dawson says. “When people talk about Louis, and abstract work in general, they often use words like ‘hum.’ You know: ‘The colors vibrate.’ So the work I made hums, and vibrates. It does for me the things that I’m meant to see when I look at a painting.”
The show is called “Ghosts” because it intends to evoke the museum’s history. The phantoms are the people and ideas that built the Phillips into what it is today. (The museum is currently celebrating its centennial.) These are represented by Dawson’s chair forms, which are more delicate than they appear. “You can see them. They’re definitely there,” he notes. “But they’re not solid enough to sit on as a chair.”
That makes the installation’s seven chairs more like sketches — 3-D drawings in brass. They’re not abstract. But they’re not fully real, either.
Intersections — Marley Dawson: Ghosts
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. phillipscollection.org.
Dates: Through Sept. 5.
Admission: $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students; free for members and visitors ages 18 and younger. Advance, timed-entry tickets are required.