David Cannon Dashiell
July 4, 1952 - June 30, 1993
Ten years ago the artist David Cannon Dashiell succumbed to AIDS at the age of forty-one. Emerging onto the Bay Area Art Scene in 1986, Dashiell became a rising star with the Artspace Award in1989 and the Adaline Kent Award in the last year of his life. He also served on the Board of The Lab and volunteered as a mentor to fellow artists living with AIDS at Visual AIDS.
Dashiell created a brilliant and prodigious body of work that addressed the ostracism of homosexuals and people with AIDS with a profound awareness of the encompassing polemics, prejudices and myopic mythologies. Informed by a subversively sophisticated knowledge of classical and religious allegories, art history, popular culture, mysticism and literature, driven by a razor sharp wit and pure endurance of the spirit, Dashiell’s work stands as a cultural critique and epistemology delivered with incisive vulnerability and strength before its time.
The tribute that follows was prepared for Stretcher by Sono Osato, artist and owner of the Estate of David Cannon Dashiell. Contributors include Nayland Blake, Timothy O’Toole, Maria Porges, Robert Riley and Rebecca Solnit (photo portrait).
The Only Subjects
The other day, I was trying to describe San Francisco’s art scene in the eighties to someone too young to have experienced the extraordinary alternative spaces and artist-run galleries that flourished here during that turbulent time. Later, I found myself thinking of Dashiell, as I have many times in recent months. Speculating about what an artist could or should have accomplished if his or her time on this earth had not been cut short is a sad and somewhat pointless activity, yet I cannot help but wonder what kind of work Dashiell would be making now, had he survived the Plague Years. For me, his installation titled Lover’s Discourse at Southern Exposure Gallery in 1987 remains one of the best uses ever made of that vast space. Spectacular, smart, and funny (in a dark sort of way), the show made me want to see more. I knew who he was; our social circles overlapped in places, and his work was widely admired among his peers. I found his work so compelling that, broke as I was, I later bought two drawings from him, from a series based on Tarot cards and parts of the body. After looking at these drawings for over a decade, I have realized that with a few well-formed lines (an armpit; the toes of one foot), they manage to simultaneously suggest dread and desire, thereby encapsulating brilliantly the nature of most relationships.
It is fortunate that Dashiell’s panoramic masterpiece, Queer Mysteries, is owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Even if they don’t show it very often, they will take care of it, and I can hold out hope that my daughters will get a chance to see it someday. I wonder how its elegantly stylized perversity would play out in our present political atmosphere, particularly in a San Francisco that has endured both a boom and a bust since the work’s debut at the museum in the early nineties. Personally, I think it would be as compellingly of the moment as it was a decade ago. As Dashiell knew, sex and power are timeless subjects. In some ways, they are the only subjects.
– Maria Porges
Dashiell in His Own Words
David Dashiell: “I’ve always had trouble with the idea of a gay sensibility. There are as many gay sensibilities as there are any other kind. But within the gay community at large, things like the AIDS epidemic have forced us to be analytical about people’s emotional reactions, and also with our own emotional reactions. So thinking in terms of a sensibility where we are critical of the world and of ourselves, then yes, it has a gay sensibility. But what’s important to me is that the work doesn’t hide my own sexuality, and I try to discuss that directly in Invert,Oracle. In the new piece, Pantocrator’s Circus, I’m trying to place that stance within the context of something else; to not make it stand out really big, but to put it into a larger context, which in the best of all worlds would happen….where it’s a part of the world.”
Nayland Blake: You left school (Cal Arts, MFA 1976) and didn’t work for a while?
DD: I literally stopped and went through this slow process of coming out. And I couldn’t deal with anything else for about three or four years. What really got me going again was a project called Plague Journal, a series of drawings about conflicting meanings in the AIDS crisis. After I did them, I heard about one of the first shows about AIDS that was being planned. I sent them in and they were accepted. People said they liked the work. That made me feel good about starting work again.
NB: Do you feel more optimistic about things now?
DD: Yeah I feel more optimistic, at least for myself. I’m becoming more active. I know in the future I am going to be participating more. Negatively, I’ve got the problem of AIDS to think about. I’m not sick now, and I’m on drug protocols, playing guinea pig. If the drugs work then I’ll be around to do things; if not, then maybe someone will hold on to all this stuff, but I don’t tend to think pessimistically. I do my work and keep my spirits up, and go out and march and scream “Fuck you” to Jesse Helms and it makes me feel a whole lot better. Yeah, I’m optimistic.
– Excerpts from an interview by Nayland Blake
Shift Magazine, 1990
David reminded me of certain boys with whom we may all be familiar via grade school: highly creative and intelligent, with a mischieviousness they would dole out on a need-to-show basis. As an adult, David embraced these aspects of his personality and gained perpetual bemusement from them…David’s inscription in a queer mysteries catalogue: “eternal masochist of glee, dancing + highly fashionable glee!”
– Timothy O’Toole
Studio Assistant to David Dashiell for Queer Mysteries
“This piece [Queer Mysteries] is perhaps the most vivid and most astonishing chronicle of an era of confusion, of alarm and of crisis that visited San Francisco and largely wiped out the artist’s community and thousands and thousands more, and that is the era of AIDS.
The color of this piece is just one that you would not normally associate with a funeral procession, but it’s the vibrancy, the hysteria of the color saturation that we see in these fields that is also alarming. This is the palette of youth, this is the figures of excitement, this is the optimism of technology – so you see the 19th century combined with the end of the 20th century, the miracle of technology which in this case cannot perform – the technology cannot perform the miracle that it claims to be able to do which is analyze materials and manufacture pharmaceuticals.
There are sets of health care workers that look very much as if they are aliens from some science fiction cartoons, and also sets of 19th century Victorian characters, fantasy figures, cowboys and magicians and circus workers and miracle workers of different sorts.
Once a person is faced with an AIDS diagnosis, particularly in the late 1980’s, there is no known avenue for the course of the disease, but one thing was certain – that people would eventually lose their lives. To have the knowledge of the end of your life at a point where then you are to live out the rest of your life, I think is the point at which David decided to make this piece.”
– Bob Riley
Past Curator of Media Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
from audio tour script, SFMOMA
Dashiell in Museum Collections
Dashiell’s masterpiece Queer Mysteries, a room-sized mural in the round based on the Dionysian mural from the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art. This acquisition as well as the restoration of the mural was made possible by Gary Garrels, currently the Chief Curator, Department of Drawings, and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA in New York City, as well as Robert Riley and Janet Bishop. Components of Invert Oracle are in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum along with Mimas from the series Wanderers, Given Names, an early work dated 1983. The Queer Mysteries Scroll is in the collection of the Whitney Museum in New York City. Drawn exquisitely in Dashiell’s own hand, it is a comprehensive study that lays out the entire sequence of Queer Mysteries in ink on a twenty-foot long Mylar scroll. The Berkeley Museum and Whitney Museum acquisitions were made possible by Larry Rinder, currently the Anne and Joel Echrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney.
David Dashiell’s archives are on file at the
Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society, P.O. Box 424280, San Francisco, California 94142, (415) 777-5455. The Society can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Queer Mysteries Mural and Scroll can be viewed at
Mark Paron, J.John Priola, and Loida Sorensen serve with Sono Osato as Executors of the Estate of David Cannon Dashiell. The Estate would like to give special acknowledgement to Julie Blankenship of Visual AIDS, Will Shank and Rebecca Solnit.