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a body in flight, but not in motion [A&C]

reflection on entanglement by dawson phillips

Stepping into a wide square room, I am immediately struck by the monochrome adorning the walls. The room is white, and the air conditioning blasts from the ceiling, sending a preliminary chill down my spine. Then a second, and third, on and on, cascading—reverberating—through my body. Around the room, each wall is decorated with a myriad of prints, each one displaying a different representation of geese. 

A knot forms in my throat as I sympathize with the geese, their necks contorted and knotted into seemingly senseless, nonsensical loops. I wonder if they’re in pain. 

I approach one of the images, captivated by the repetitive composition; with each print wired together to make one large canvas, their pain multiplies—as does my discomfort, so too my captivation. The geese stare at me, their eyes looking into my enthralled ones. I draw my hand to the piece, reaching as if to unwind their entangled necks, and then caress their beak with a gentle You’ll be okay, but actually stopping just before I make contact. The pain continues.

The description informs me that such a complex body of work was created by a sophomore—one of my peers. My feet pass slowly around the room as I stare into each piece, each goose image leaving me more stunned than the last. I imagine them leaving their canvases, each one walking around the vicinity of the room, their necks each tied around themselves, squawking in discomfort. Me too

How could drawings of geese leave me so dumbfounded?

What is this? 

Dawson Phillips' recent exhibition entitled Entanglement in the List Art Building utilized printwork and drawing in order to create a truly inspirational body of work concerning a single topic: geese. Phillips’ work transforms a simple bird into a complex body of work that asks us to rethink our relationship to gender norms and sexuality. The geese are drawn as an abstracted and fluid body in black and white; Phillips warps the neck into an intricate cacophony of shapes and swirls.There are some works showing a single goose, some showing multiple, and some showing just two. The poster for the exhibition displays one after another wrapped around themselves—wrapped around each other—necks interwoven and interlocked, taking up the whole paper in a cacophony of television static shaking and blurring into readable shapes. Another work shows a goose sitting in peace, but its neck cranes into a maze in which I lose myself, and the goose loses its way. There is a work that shows the geese abstracted by geometric shapes, as Philips uses negative and positive space to warp when the geese come into view. Another shows a human hand wrapping around a goose neck—bent by the venous hand, or caressed by the softly opened fingers; liquid drips from its mouth.

According to Phillips, the geese serve “as phallic symbols, personifying the shortcomings of western constructions of masculinity and male sexuality.” Through his work, he examines the “nebulous, contradictory, and ever-changing nature of normative masculinity while offering a concrete representation of its limitations.” As representations of the penis, this imagery is thoughtfully jarring, confronting the consumers directly with ideas so frequently cast aside. The constricting nature of the geese serve to remind us of the way in which our current norms of masculinity, gender, and sexuality in western culture bind us, strangling us in a way similar to the entanglements of the geese.

For Phillips, each piece in the exhibition highlighted a different facet of masculinity, asking how it influences our relationship with ourselves and the world around us. Beginning with the constricting and contradictory nature of gendered expectations, he says the scope of his exhibition broadened with the addition of each new piece. Indeed, the work seems to transform as each new piece comes into view. We are, in the beginning, greeted by the imagery of these entangled geese, constricted and unfree. Slowly, however, the geese seem to unwrap themselves. By the end, we are greeted with the image of two free geese flying—one right side up and the other upside down. Phillips gives us hope, telling us that these constricting norms need not be the way they are today; he allows us to imagine new worlds where we are free to fly. 

When asked about the inspiration behind the work, Phillips answered that he was influenced by birds and the natural world. This past summer, he interned at Flatbed Press in Austin, Texas, where he learned from printmakers and other artists in the studio. Experimenting with techniques of intaglio and linocuts in addition to his Micron pen drawings, his oeuvre began to take shape. Regarding the theme of his work, Phillips took a lot of inspiration from his introductory gender and sexuality studies course at Brown. He explained that the readings and assignments gave him a vocabulary to explain his frustrations with normative gender expectations. 

Other than being a representation of the phallic, Philips explained that he utilized geese since he has a passion for birding and can find inspiration in each bird he sees. He says he has always enjoyed incorporating birds into his artwork, and he finds that birds can serve as a powerful symbol for many different ideas. In this series, Phillips specifically chose the Canada goose. Philips utilized the Canada goose since they are fairly ubiquitous, which can make them relatable to the viewer. In addition, Phillips finds that geese are versatile in the message they can communicate to the viewer. Canada geese are full of contradictions. They appear graceful and approachable, but can be protective and aggressive. This is represented in his work as a smooth, beautiful bird is warped into a position that makes me wince. Phillips hoped to take advantage of this range by incorporating it into a meaningful body of work. 

The work took Phillips eight arduous but enlightening months. He had come up with the concept this past February, creating the first piece in a flurry of inspiration. He worked on the series over the summer, and finished his final three pieces in the month leading to his exhibition. Some of the artists that inspired him included Adrian Armstrong, Carlos Barberena, Doron Langberg, and Katarina Riesing. Each artist works in a different medium—painting, sculpture, print—yet all confront the viewers with stark images of gender, political stigmatization, and sexuality in order to warp the way we see the world and ask us to reevaluate our normative conditions. 

For the time being, Phillips says he is finished with goose-related work. According to him, the exhibition gave him a lot of new ideas on how to continue pushing himself to express similarly challenging ideas with his art. This semester he is taking an introductory painting class, which he finds challenging but rewarding, but that’s what keeps him going. He doesn’t know what the future holds, but you can keep up with his work on Instagram @dawson__art. 

I, for one, know that I will be flying to see whatever he releases next.

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