Viewing Anais Dasse's art is like being pulled into a world where Maurice Sendak and The Lord of the Flies are mashed up at some dark, dystopian deer camp deep in the woods, and everything is seen through night-vision goggles.
Using gesso, oil paint, pencil, charcoal and collage, the French-born, Little Rock-based Dasse creates striking images of children and animals, sometimes at odds with each other, sometimes co-existing peacefully.
“Anais Dasse: Saint George”
Through Dec. 2
Brad Cushman Gallery, Windgate Center of Art + Design, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2801 S. University Ave., Little Rock
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday
The children wear what appear to be hooded onesies that are adorned in patterns both hieroglyphic and tribal. They are often armed and seem as wild as the beasts around them. To see Dasse's work up close is to also be smitten by her skill for design, where details emerge with repeated views, like in a tapestry.
Behind these images that are at times chaotic and forceful is a firm plan and message that has so much to do with the 31-year-old Dasse's exposure to America and Arkansas.
Four of her works are in a new exhibit, "Anais Dasse: Saint George," that opened Saturday in the Brad Cushman Gallery, Level 2, at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Windgate Center of Art + Design. Another exhibit, with her friend the sculptor Andy Huss, will open Oct. 26 at Boswell-Mourot Fine Art in Little Rock.
Dasse is represented by Boswell-Mourot. Kyle Boswell is owner of the gallery.
"One of the things I'm drawn to is her perspective as an international artist," he says. "She is someone who has come here and is discussing through their art what they are experiencing."
It's a gray Friday afternoon in September and Dasse is in the west Little Rock woodworking shop that Huss is letting her use for her studio.
Works in different stages of completion are scattered about.
"It's a little bit messy right now," she says, her fluent English filtered through a lilting French accent. She has a slightly hyper energy that makes it hard to sit still for the photographer who is trying to take her picture.
Dasse is from Bayonne, a city in the Basque region of southwest France, and moved to Paris with her parents and her younger brother and sister when she was around 6 years old. Both her parents are Basque.
"Those are very strong roots," she says of her Basque heritage. "It's a very old pagan culture that later mixed with early Christianity. It's about family and tradition and the love of the land."
Dasse's family stuck close together.
"I enjoyed a lot of freedom. My parents were like, 'Go play with your cousins, play with your siblings.' I realized later in life that my parents didn't receive many people outside the family circle."
There weren't any artists in her family, but she started drawing at an early age. Video games, Disney movies and her colorful Basque heritage were early influences, as was the work of Russian filmmaker Youri Norstein, especially his 1975 short Hedgehog in the Fog, which combined the natural world with the magical to create an ethereal atmosphere.
When it came time for college, Dasse opted for a more practical route, studying scientific illustration at the legendary L'ecole Estienne in Paris.
"I went into the more employable part of art," she says. "I didn't expect to go into fine art in my life."
Coming to America changed that.
After graduating, Dasse started her own business creating scientific illustrations for museums and hospitals.
"It was about taking this very complex subject and translating it for different audiences," she says.
Things were going well, but she and her husband were not too keen on France's high tax rate or life in crowded, expensive Paris.
When an opportunity came in 2014 to move to Little Rock, they took it.
"It was a big jump, but that was the idea, to be challenged and do something different."
She had grown up with American TV, films and literature, but now she was smack dab in the Southern depths of flyover country.
"I was in a neighborhood where kids were roaming free, where you could buy a gun at Walmart," she says. The weekly tornado siren tests reminded her of Silent Hill, a video game she used to play, when a siren meant a monster was coming.
"I'd never experienced that before," she says, laughing. "All this stuff was cultural background that was far away on TV until suddenly I was on the other side."
Seeing children playing unsupervised on her street, the availability of guns and photos of hunters with their kills had an impact, and Dasse began trying to interpret what she was seeing through art, creating a visual narrative populated by kids and wildlife and firearms.
There were also other influences, such as European tapestries from the 15th century and the paintings of Alabama-born Kerry James Marshall, whom Dasse calls "one of the greatest storytellers of our time."
Her mostly black-and-white pieces create a sense of permanent nighttime, and she says that comes in part from images taken by cameras used to film animals in the darkness.
"I'd never seen that before. It's a really big aesthetic," she says.
Another design choice she consistently returns to are the patterns on the clothing worn by her human figures.
"It's about glimpses of a culture that is fictional," she says. "I created codes for this fictional culture."
Those codes are culled from her Basque roots, art history and French north African colonialism, among other sources.
"People here projected native American narratives, Mexican narratives," she says. "I was pretty happy about that because something that was entirely fictional and from a really radical point of view was perceived differently here, but it wasn't less relevant."
Brad Cushman, UALR gallery director and curator, was introduced to Dasse's work by Boswell.
"The dynamics that she creates between all the different characters, it's like a great novel," he says. "You want to go back and re-read it. And not only are her stories dynamic, but her handling of the medium is seductive."
In 2016, two of her pieces, The Daughter and Kids Are Terrible People Too were accepted in the 58th Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center. The UALR art department bought the latter. In 2018, Dasse's Sticks and Stones, which showed children and wolves wrestling in a forest, won the Delta Award.
Huss first saw Dasse's work at the 2016 Delta.
"Incredible," he says of his reaction. "For me, it stood out from everything else ... She is so loose and gestural. She's got such a good eye and hand and feel for composition. It is strong, strong work."
They became friends, and when Huss learned she was making these large works in her spare bedroom, he offered up the woodshop space that he wasn't using.
"She likes her canvas laying on the ground, or she'll put it on a table," Huss says. "It's not stretched and on an easel like you would normally think a painter would work."
The titular piece of the UALR exhibit is a mixed-media installation made of fabric, wool and other materials that shows a pistol-waving child posed with a dead alligator. It was inspired by the legend of the dragon-slaying Saint George and a trip to Florida.
"Three years ago I visited the Everglades," Dasse says. "I always wanted to do a piece with 'gators, and I saw where people there were hunting them."
Pictures of hunters standing next to huge, strung-up, lifeless alligators left an impression.
"I thought that was pretty interesting," she says. "It shows the size of the 'gators, and also it's like the [hunters] are saying that they own them."
Back in France, she worked in museums making dioramas and other three-dimensional works, so it's not an entirely new form.
Cushman says he was immediately impressed with Saint George.
"I said, 'I want to show that.' It is so powerful."
Another piece, The Rapt of Ganymede, shows a child being attacked by a group of angry bald eagles. Referencing Peter Paul Rubens' The Rape of Ganymede (1636-1638), it is filled with action and drama and shows Dasse's ability with gesture and motion.
In Hog Hunting, a boy fights with a wild hog as snarling, barking dogs close in for the kill.
Spread across a table in the middle of the woodshop/studio is an 8-foot-by-6-foot canvas work-in-progress that shows distraught children in a cage surrounded by birds and other kids. One child sits on the cage and wears a Klansman's hood and a banner of stars. Across the top, the title of the piece is stenciled: When They Put the Children in Cage, You Did Nothing.
It will be part of the exhibit at Boswell-Mourot and was inspired by recent news stories about squalid conditions at Texas detention centers where migrants were being kept.
"I was angry," Dasse says.
While some people take up sports or other hobbies to cope with the seemingly nonstop buzz of political dissonance, she makes art.
"When you're watching the news, when you see people say stupid things on Twitter. You're like, 'What is going on,'" she says. "Some people rant on Twitter or over the family dinner. For me, I needed to express myself."
Cushman says Dasse "is not afraid to address issues that are important to her in the society we live in now. I think it is a brave thing to do, and I respect the confidence that it takes for someone to do it."
Boswell, who showed Dasse's work at the Spectrum Art Fair during the huge Art Basel fair in Miami in 2017, feels her work could gain attention beyond the South.
"Her work presented very well," he says. "I think she could skip becoming a regional artist and become a coastal-type artist -- Miami, New York, L.A. I think she has the opportunity to grow nationwide."
He compares Dasse with another of his clients, Delita Martin.
Martin's work, he says, "has always told a story ... and that's what I like about Anais, she's building and she has a direction."
Dasse works on several pieces at once, fixing what she may not have noticed earlier and then moving to another.
"She is so confident with everything she puts down," Huss says. "If it's not right, she will keep tweaking it and tweaking it until it's correct."
She was finishing up pieces for the October exhibits last month, but lately, she's been working with textiles, as she did with Saint George.
"I don't trust my ability to stay in one place [artistically] for very long," she says. "I don't control everything in my environment, and I get more anxious every year. I want to still be able to do large pieces that I can still move by myself, so I was exploring the idea of using tapestries, and I'm going to start quilting."
The quilting urge, she says, is from living here.
"Arts and crafts are pretty big in the South. They're frowned upon in France. Here, people are way more accepting. They're like, 'Hey, you're expressing yourself. This is art.'"
Style on 10/13/2019
Print Headline: Into the wild