One Work, Short Take: Dan Lam in Dallas

by Matthew Bourbon May 21, 2021

Dan Lam, A Subtle Alchemy, 2021. On view at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 2021. Photo via the artist’s website.

One of the first things that comes to mind when viewing Dan Lam’s blobby and drippy sculptures is early era monster movies. A Subtle Alchemy, 2021 is no exception. This playfully gloomy sculpture is the largest work Lam has made to date. It currently resides in the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas feeling like a visitor from another planet, or a prop from Stranger Things. In this incarnation the creature shape is cave-like, allowing one to walk under and through its globular darkness. It’s as if a traditional Jewish chuppah was made for a b-horror movie.

Usually with Lam’s art the amiably monsterish forms are bright with cheery colors. Small daubs and stippled marks consistently lighten any potential creep factor such that the objects are mostly just alluring. In fact, Lam’s art almost always reads as lighthearted — like some mashup of gelatin, flowing lava, and ocean organisms. The spikey piped textures imply a certain danger or unease, but mostly they come across as a candy-colored confections. Taken en masse Lam’s work is seductive but can feel too relentlessly the same, as if she’s making product mainly to appeal. 

This new piece, however, cracks open the uniformity of Lam’s process and orients the work toward a possibly riskier and unpredictable future. For the first time, her use of high-gloss automotive paint allows the sculpture to shift appearance when seen from different vantages. Three digital projectors throw light on the sculpture further animating the surface; the shady but iridescently fluctuating skin refracts light revealing a cinema of deep greens and rich purples. The lighted form seems geared for the nighttime; it reminds one of the lo-fi tricks used in haunted houses or retro discotheques.  

The general darkness of A Subtle Alchemy, however, helps usher Lam’s work into a more uncomfortable space. While a cuteness of form is still present (note the almost paw-like feet of the sculpture), the overall impression is less about immediate seduction, and instead is pitched toward something imposing and maybe even mildly threatening. Narrative implications aside, the sculpture owes a huge debt to the artist Lynda Benglis. One can see this overt connection on view in another room of the museum where Benglis’ Quartered Meteor, 1969/1975/2018 is on display. The flowing magma shapes are nearly the same in each artwork. It’s almost as if Lam’s A Subtle Alchemy is a louder, darker, and less sensitive offspring to Benglis’ iconic work.  

On view through May 23 at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas.

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