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Recomposing the Social Body
Dianna Settles at MARCH
Matt Peterson reviews Dianna Settles' exhibition at MARCH from August 25 to October 8.
Written by Matt Peterson
For the last dozen years Italian theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has been declaring our collective and deep-seeded need to reactivate and recompose the erotic, poetic, and social body. This, for him, would be the beginning of a new revolutionary politics—a new movement, ethics, and culture.
This summer MARCH hosted the first New York solo show of Atlanta-based, Vietnamese-American artist Dianna Settles, “A Life Worth Living Would Be a Life Worth Living.”
In Settles’ work, which exists somewhere between group portraiture and still life, we see scenes of land defense occupations, urban revolt, and target shooting practice, set alongside images of people hanging newly dyed garments, harvesting vegetables on a farm, and producing apple cider. Across eighteen paintings we’re shown a world of masked and armed militants sharing communal space with naked gardeners and wood choppers; not to counterpose but to aggregate the shared possibilities of radical collectivity today.
The strength of Settles’ work is in its being fully experiential, rather than merely observational. It’s a vision of the contemporary where the artist’s gift is not just being able to see, but to be present with—to experience, to share time. Settles’ paintings place her in community, in context, in lived solidarity with friends—neighbors, comrades, lovers, animals, plants, the earth. In this world it’s in the smallest moments and gestures of daily life where relationships truly gain their shared strength.
Described to me by the artist as “collages of imagined arrangements, poses, and crafts,” to do this kind of documentation in painting breaks from the representation of counter-cultural youth movements we’ve seen in photography, cinema, or text. The work has a warmth not felt in the frigid nihilism of Larry Clark, a self-implication not present in the maternal documentaries of Penelope Spheeris, and an unpretentious seductiveness not readable in the analytic ethnography of David Graeber. The closest affective references might be Jonas Mekas’ 1968 diary film Walden, or in the spirit and immediacy felt while reading Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters series (first published by the Diggers in 1968, and re-released last year in a posthumous edition by City Lights).
Previously working as a printmaker and tattooist, Settles’ paintings carry something of the familiarity and intimacy of hand-drawn zine illustrations, but their staying power comes from the decisive permanence and commitment to large canvas, and the added depth of her vibrant acrylic color-scapes and scale. The paintings are never just studies of the individual or the body, nor are they removed conceptual narratives of some distant epic. They are a shared diary with an invitation to enter, learn, and participate, featuring titles like, “How do we follow after you?,” “How to make it last,” “Gentle, insistent, we remember the way,” and “All we ever wanted was everything.”
Two years after something of our own 1968, we’re constantly reminded of the dystopian acceleration of a life now lived totally online—where the entirety of our labor, education, entertainment, and general reproduction is mediated and governed by endless hours looking at Zoom, Amazon, Netflix, Slack, and UberEats—stuck inside alone wherever we may find ourselves. Settles’ paintings point towards another way of life worth living, where we see one cell in a molecular movement embracing the joy and vitality of togetherness—of our physicality in community and shared space, along with chickens and squirrels, vegetables and each other.
Prior to Bifo saying “the essential meaning of art is the reactivation of the erotic social body,” Deleuze once wrote, in response to Spinoza before him:
What can a body do? We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.