During the 1980s Walter Dahn’s work underwent a number of changes. At the beginning, he painted with an intensely subjective line and a wide range of colours. But in the second half of the decade his work was transformed in a process he himself called a ‘flight from painting as painting’. That evolution led him to work with new techniques such as aerosol, photography and especially silk-screen. A wide range of images drawn from popular culture appeared in his vocabulary, and he found these elements far more attractive than any he could create directly himself. Years later he said that ‘the most everyday, obvious things can be transformed into high-quality art, recycled in an artistic context where they take on new meanings.’
Jerk of the Month is the result this kind of process. Like other works from the same period, it is a large canvas measuring three by two metres. The image, drawn in a simple black line, shows a globe from which a structure emerges. A human figure holding a mask is climbing up the structure. The desire to play with images we find around us every day is a deliberate visual strategy here. Dahn subjects the forms to a process of neutralisation and decontextualisation that can be seen in the choice of a basic light background and energetic dark outlines.
The work seeks to play with the viewer by suggesting many possible interpretations. At the time when it was produced, Dahn was showing great interest in the cultures of countries in Latin America and Africa. Here we should recall his series of eleven large-format paintings from the same year, 1987, in which he reproduces details of a single photograph showing a series of Brazilian votive masks. The enlarging of the images and the resulting loss of quality (in the paintings he reproduces the grain that appears on photographs when they are blown up to an excessive degree) are intended to make the viewer think about the validity of certain convictions concerning the supposed primacy of some cultures over others. At the same time, the pieces suggest a reflection on the limitations of painting as a medium, since the images are on the verge of dissolving into unrecognisable stains.
Jerk of the Month must be interpreted in relation to the works in that series. The presence of a human figure holding a mask underscores that Dahn wishes to question the treatment historically meted out to cultures regarded as peripheral, and their consideration as an alternative to global culture. Large companies often encourage branch employees by nominating a ‘worker of the month’ and some magazines name a ‘man or woman of the year’. In this case, Dahn has created a figure he has dubbed ‘jerk of the month’ and held it up for the whole world to see.