When I visited artist Gabriel Dawe during the installation of his new work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, there was already thousands of lines of colored thread and miles of looped and woven filament spanning the upper level of the atrium space. That day he would spend another six hours installing Plexus No. 38. He was three weeks into the creation of the rainbow-hued work made of thread tightly stretched between a series of hooks on the walls. At first glance, it appears as if two rainbows or ribbons of spectral light have been captured, until they seem to suddenly writhe with life and energy.
Two hydraulic lifts were parked on the white tile floor of the atrium’s 30-foot-high space. A plastic folding table was covered with carefully arranged rows of brightly colored, polyester sewing thread, and Dawe’s two young assistants stood at the ready.
Dawe transforms the material and space into an impressive installation of optical art. Colorful strands appear to ricochet off the white walls, held aloft in the natural light of the space’s glass ceiling. The effect is of a kind of harnessed double rainbow, or the stained glass of a cathedral. “In a space like this, the natural light will fluctuate throughout the day,” explains Dawe, “and it really changes the effect of the installation.”
Growing up in Mexico City, Dawe, who now lives in Dallas, was fascinated by his grandmother’s embroidering of elaborate, colorful pieces. But as a boy, he wasn’t allowed to embroider. “That was really frustrating for me,” he says of the gender-defined roles. “I grew out of that, but I remembered that frustration as I was trying to decide my path as an artist, so I picked up thread and needle to teach myself embroidery, as a way to challenge those notions of gender.”
While literal rainbows rather than the LGBTQ community inspired the tonal palette, Dawe welcomes that deeper discussion of gender that his work may inspire. “I love that especially now the younger generation is exploring binary and hetero normative ideas, pushing these gender boundaries further and further,” says the 40-year-old artist.
MOCA Jax’s site-specific installation series, now in its sixth season, has featured the work of three mid-career and emerging artists each year, including Sarah Emerson, Joelle Dietrick, Gustavo Godoy, Ethan Murrow, and Angela Glajcar.
“I was attracted to Gabriel’s work when I first saw it years ago,” says Jaime DeSimone, curator at MOCA Jax, who watched him grow quickly. “We always try to find that sweet spot, when artists are ready to take on this very cavernous space.”
The atrium space can surely appear daunting. It’s the first thing that greets visitors to the museum. Bookended by the two staircases leading up to the galleries, it is an immediate visual statement about the purpose and vision of MOCA Jax.
As Dawe and his assistants worked methodically and efficiently, it was apparent that he is the ideal artist to navigate the space. The artists for Project Atrium are creating in an open space on the museum’s first floor, in full view of the public, which helps to demystify the creative process. It’s not uncommon for visitors to ask the artists questions as they are working, breaking down the proverbial “fourth wall” of art making, and in turn, contemporary art.
“There are spaces that will not allow certain things,” says Dawe, who works on a large scale and needs spaces that can accommodate his sweeping installations. “A limited space doesn’t offer me the opportunity to explore, but sometimes the space can seem as fascinating and inspiring as the actual work. They are one and the same.”
Plexus No. 38 is on view at MOCA Jacksonville through October 29.
Daniel A. Brown is a musician, writer, and editor living in Jacksonville, Florida. A onetime bassist for Royal Trux and ’68 Comeback, Brown is the former twice-arts and entertainment editor for Folio Weekly. Brown has written for DownBeat Magazine, Cartwheel Art, Aesthetica and American Airline’s American Way Magazine. In addition, Brown maintains an arts site called Starehouse (starehouse.com), which profiles Northeast Florida, national and international artists. He is currently the bassist in the band One-Eleven Heavy.