Harvard artist Doug Slade’s ‘Dada Again?’ transforms Concord transcendentalists

I admit I was a bit surprised at first when West Bare Hill Road resident Doug Slade told me his art is on exhibit for the month of December at the gallery in the mezzanine of the Concord Public Library. In my mind, the Concord Library, an elegant Georgian building whose interior has beautiful wood panelling, large old windows, and wrought-iron balconies around the mezzanine, seems sacrosanct, a preserver of New England history and tradition. And while I am a fan of Slade’s work, he is, by his own admission, “out there.” He works in the style of dada, a short-lived art movement begun in 1915 that aspired “to destroy traditional taste and beauty.” Slade said he loves those creative artists who wanted to try something new, to rip things apart and put them back together in a different way. In his own work he distorts images, challenging the viewer’s conventional way of seeing things. So I wasn’t sure how Slade and the Concord Library would fit together.

At the opening reception Dec. 3, it became clear that Slade’s art, though somewhat incongruous in the setting, works perfectly on its own in the gallery space. It’s actually the perfect place for an exhibit that says, “Hey, look at things differently.” His earlier work—large colorful posters and collages—line the lengthy solid wall of the gallery, eliciting this comment from one viewer: “I like the different mediums. There’s awesome color, and they’re different. Different is my bailiwick, too.” One early work is a poster announcing Spiritus, a pizza place in Provincetown, with black circles suggesting patrons. Another is a poster of a design for a T-shirt for the Rolling Stones featuring a face with black ski mask, red horns, and a stuck-out tongue. The words “Pleased to Meet You” are written below.

"Thoreau Stuck on Rt. 2" by Doug Slade.

But my eyes were drawn immediately to the opposite wall, to the works in silver, black, and grey that flank the opening of the gallery to the balcony. These are three new pieces, done explicitly for this show. Slade told me it was two years ago that his work had been accepted by the library for the month of December 2017. He said he knew immediately he wanted to use a background material that would portray the bleakness of a winter day. Over the past two years, he immersed himself in the lives of the transcendentalists, and he read extensively in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. He was further inspired by the recent exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, displayed in this same gallery.

Three transcendentalists

All of this came together in Slade’s portraits of transcendentalists Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau’s sister, Sophia. Each is about 2 feet by 3 feet and each is printed on a matte-finish aluminum type of material, which works well for the bleakness Slade wanted to effect. Walden Pond was an important feature in his subjects’ lives, and faint streaks of blue watercolor in each piece suggest the surface of water. In the foreground of each are black markings and a sign, and their titles are written sideways on one border. “I continue to be inspired by dada, with my own twist,” Slade said of his new works. One might say that dadaism and transcendentalism are alike in believing in the power of imagination and in breaking tradition in order to create something new.

At the center of the trio is “Thoreau Wtuck on Route 2.” Slade’s drawing of Thoreau is taken from the cover of one of the books he read. But here, Thoreau’s dark hair and beard are unruly, and his eyes are distorted to have a dazed look. His lips seem puffed, perhaps to suggest that words are bursting to come out. His expression seems to match the desperation of his situation, a bleak one indeed. A bright yellow diamond sign surrounds the portrait, suggesting impending danger, and the black sign announcing Route 2 makes clear what that is. The aluminum also captures the idea of the highway, and the piece seems to perfectly capture how lost and unhappy Thoreau would be in this modern age of busy traffic that cuts off access to nature.

Louisa waiting for Thoreau

Across the balcony opening is “Louisa waiting for Thoreau.” Slade pointed down to the library’s first floor to a bust of Louisa May Alcott, with wrought-iron railings beside her. “That’s where I got the idea,” said Slade, adding that the pieces of black railing became trees in the picture. Louisa is close to the black lines, suggesting her closeness to nature and also evoking the image of a forlorn woman leaning in sadness against a tree. A black sign in the foreground reads Walden Pond. Slade said that while he was doing his reading, he sometimes thought there was “something” between Louisa and Thoreau. It seems Slade wanted to suggest that longing Louisa may have felt—and the futility of her waiting for anything to materialize. Back on the other side of Thoreau is “Sophia Thoreau waiting for Henry.” The original for this portrait Slade found this fall in a Boston Globe article announcing the discovery of a daguerreotype of Thoreau’s sister, which is now in the Concord Museum. Slade has enclosed her face in a tag, like one you would use to identify an item in a museum collection. The tag, the bleak background, and the sadness in Sophia’s eyes suggest the idea of lostness. It seems she was never close to Henry in the way her other brother, John, was, and for years she was, in fact, lost to history.

A collaboration

For these new works, as well as for most of those on exhibit, Slade collaborated with Joe Ofria, a photographer from Groton, who told me he and Slade were classmates at Lexington High School. They lost track for more than 35 years but found each other again maybe 15 years ago and have been collaborating ever since. Ofria scans Slade’s images into the computer. “Doug tells me what to do, and I do it,” Ofria said, adding that he then cleans things up and sends the file to ISS print shop in Shirley, where images are enlarged and can be printed on different materials. “There’s no canvas other than the printout of the digital image,” said Ofria.

Four large collage pieces are earlier examples of this collaboration. They spell out DADA, each letter formed around a black and silver collage of images from the original dada artists. Surrounding the letters are brightly colored rectangles in random patterns. Davida Bagatelle of Harvard, who calls her longtime friend and neighbor “Dada Doug,” said the exhibit is “out of sight.”

On another wall are three of the eight pieces Slade exhibited in a 2016 show at the Harvard Library. In each piece, colorful shapes form the impression of a female model who’s holding a very realistic, high-end pocketbook, in fact, an actual cutout from a fashion magazine. Again, Slade worked with Ofria to input the different pieces into the computer and then have them enlarged and printed on a shiny black material. “They have a happy attitude,” remarked a woman visitor. “They’re fun, and some are even a little silly.”

“Doug is totally fearless as an artist,” said Ofria. “His approach is to throw it up and see what sticks.” It’s a coup for Slade that it stuck in Concord.

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