Dara Engler, How to Wattle and Daub

The Handwerker Gallery presents:

August 31—October 12, 2016

Curated by Mara Baldwin

Research by Lisa Peck (Art History ’17)


Wash your gullet with wine for the Dog Star returns

with the heat of summer searing a thirsting earth.

Cicadas cry softly under high leaves, and pour down

shrill song incessantly from under their wings.

            - excerpt from Summer Star, Alcaeus of Mytilene (620-580 B.C.E.)

                        translation by Willis Barnstone

The heat of summer is unmistakable — the searing sun and dry climate is experienced universally as the earth turns out of its own shadow. Characterized by the emotional turbulence of bright and extended days, the season seems to parallel and exacerbate the quandary of existence experienced by youth. The frustration of adolescence focuses on issues of self-identity, social awareness, familial dissonance, and patriarchal defiance. The summer season is rife with the qualities that sustain this transition into adulthood. It supplies the long hours necessary for self-discovery and independence, and the weather permits the curious wandering and indexing of emotional, social, and physical terrains. The traits associated with the humor of yellow bile and the arid nature of a choleric temperament align with these queries. According to the early philosophical writings of Galen (129 – c. 200 C.E.) and his followers, a physical excess of yellow bile caused the choleric dispositions associated with youth and the socially outspoken.

Dara Engler’s paintings explore the experience of being and surviving while being alone. Her recent work in A Pirate’s Guide to Heat and Meat gives us an intimate but voyeuristic view of daily life as her titular character seeks to make sense of their relationship to surroundings through exploration and alteration of their environment. In The Girls Who Spun Gold, the work of Nydia Blas, she captures the staged and accidental narrative of young women of color, reclaiming their own image by posing questions of identity to the viewer. Both artists share a committed questioning of the power of the self and a search for personal protection.



Weaving a story of circumstance, power, and magic, the staged photographs of Nydia Blas create a physical and allegorical space where girls and women reside with agency and authority over the way they are seen. Made through collaboration with a local group of young women, Blas’ portraits reveal the unique relationships between her subjects, built through mutual respect, care, and understanding. Destabilizing the misconception that the intimacies and pleasure of girls are for the experience of others, the young women in Blas' photographs reclaim, explore, and protect themselves through a curation of objects and interactions. A compositional language of chipped nail polish, textured dresses, and patterned furniture is embellished with unexpected interruptions of glitter, honey, and gold. Working against the backdrop of a small predominantly white college town referred to as “10 square miles surrounded by reality,” Blas recognizes her own frustrated experiences of growing up in Ithaca in the 1990's, writing, “We suffered the same boredom, ran the same streets, and felt stifled at the same schools.” Acknowledging circumstances by stepping around them, The Girls Who Spun Gold depicts a view of real and imagined landscapes through a Black feminine lens-- one through which young women of color look back, unflinchingly.   



Recent paintings by Dara Engler chronicle the flaws and foibles of an anti-heroic alter ego as she faces the duress of awkward environmental circumstances. The surfaces of these works, built slowly and intuitively and from self-observation, reflect and exaggerate both the artist's personal appearance and experiences, fashioned through thick application of paint and carefully detailed renderings. Engler’s character, 'The Pirate', has evolved into an intrepid explorer through extended character study begun in 2008, now discovering new creatures in new lands. Paintings depict her learning to tie nets, spear fish, build wattle and daub shelter, and skin squirrels. As with any allegory, the differences between the artist and her subject are not accidental-- as Engler states, “By painting this character, I prevent myself from becoming her.” The Pirate, unlike Engler, executes tasks with unapologetic haste and inefficiency--Engler’s painting, How to Skin a Squirrel, might be more aptly titled, How NOT to Skin a Squirrel. In How to Wattle and Daub, The Pirate clutches an axe while crouching in a poorly-constructed shelter in which she barely fits. Barefooted and newspaper-hatted, The Pirate enthusiastically intervenes upon and alters her environment, though with fumbling hands. Engler’s exhibition, A Pirate’s Guide to Heat and Meat, provides the museological context for the shelter, tools, and narrative displays of The Pirate’s solitary struggle and frontier survival, with paintings teetering between real and imagined worlds.