Dallas Chaos II: Media Circus

On the morning of November 24, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, infamous for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was to be transferred to an armored truck; yet, Oswald never made it to the vehicle. Surrounded by crowds of news reporters, cameramen, and photographers, Jack Ruby was virtually unseen as he stepped forward, drew a Colt Cobra .38 pistol, and murdered Oswald with a fatal shot. “The Shot Seen ‘Round the World” was instantaneously covered by the media, scarring the event into the public’s memory.

Exploring the private nature of horrific public events, Peter Dean questioned the truthfulness of the images recalled by the public. Frantically thrusting paint against a canvas in 1982, Dallas Chaos II was created, depicting the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby nearly twenty years earlier.

At first glance, one is immediately overwhelmed by Dean’s massive oil painting. Hung upon a free-standing wall within the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art located in Austin, Texas, the piece derives importance and attention. Using dense, theatrical brushwork, Dean creates an expressionistic style exemplifying garish colors and carnivalesque imagery that astounds his viewers. Obvious brushstrokes layer upon each other to create thick impasto that adds to the chaos displayed and creates a cohesive piece full of formal decisions that work together to contribute to the concept.

In order to convey the chaotic mess of the crime scene, Dean created a mess of his own upon his canvas. With a composition nearly completely filled with action, bright colors, and thick paint, there is little space for the viewer’s eyes to rest, mimicking the chaotic action surrounding any who had been at the scene that day. One must fight through layers of paint and multitudes of colors in order to create sense of the space. Once taking in the vibrant, saturated, and unrealistic colors, figures begin to appear from the madness.

Oswald is generally the first figure to be noticed, intended by Dean to become the focal point. Having painted Oswald with carney shades of red, green, and blue, Dean manipulated color to create a point of emphasis. Surrounded by characters adorned in pale, neutral shades, Oswald, bathed in bright, saturated colors, advances and captures the viewer’s attention. The texture of paint on Oswald also varies, helping to differentiate him from the other characters as the paint upon his pants appears smooth and thin, as if washed upon, rather than thick and crusted as elsewhere within the piece. Dean purposely used different methods to construct Oswald in order to give him emphasis and immediately demand attention.

Contrasting with Oswald, the policemen within the scene recede into the background, replicating their inability to help. One officer’s face, masked in white offers a lack of color that allows an oasis for one’s eyes to find refuge from the chaotic explosion of color that overpowers the composition. One does not find relief within this face, however, but unease as the masked man rivets his gloomy eyes upon the viewer, unwilling to relinquish its prey. This minimal area upon the canvas was skillfully created to falsely offer the viewer hope of peace, only to reveal the helpless feelings overwhelming the police force.

Smaller formal decisions made by Dean help bring the piece together through minute details such as the decision to skew the entire scene. Set against a lurid backdrop, Jack Ruby’s crime is molded into an altered perspective, suggesting complicity on the part of the media, law enforcement, and governmental authority. The background, painted within a repeating pattern of bricks seems to encroach upon the tiled floor at the base of the painting, creating confusion and adding to the chaos perceived by the viewer. Also aiding to create noise and action, thin white streaks of paint are flicked out of the dogs’ mouths as they snarl at Ruby. Repeating the thin, white marks in the stripes within Ruby’s coat, the technique is reused creating harmony and belonging. These lines are also repeated within the flashes of light streaming out of the photographers’ cameras and within the elements that help relate Ruby and Oswald as predator and prey, locking their eyes together. These lines etched into the thick surface differ in texture from the rest of the piece, allowing them to be easily visible to the viewer and helping to keep emphasis within these two characters while unifying them with the rest of the piece.

At a time when Minimalist and Conceptualist aesthetic were prevailing in New York, Peter Dean defied the popular styles in order to create his own expressionistic piece. Unrealistically portraying Jack Ruby’s assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, figures appear abstract and grotesque. All clustered together, each character blends in with the next creating a mass of cluttered chaos that strikes the viewer immediately. Forcing one to strain to find the details within the piece or to even make sense of the jumbled action, Dean creates an unusual depiction of an infamous act in order to convey hidden meaning.

As soon as one rests eyes upon Peter Dean’s vivid, yet grotesque, painting, one is taken aback. Each time a new person discovered the painting behind the free-standing wall, gasps were heard and heads were turned. With such unusual and intimidating carnivalesque imagery, Chaos Dallas II successfully reveals the excessive media coverage that erupted from Jack Ruby’s assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald the morning of November 24, 1963 and causes viewers to question the murder and the related images etched within their memories. Upon viewing the striking artwork, one is forced to analyze, not only the chaotic composition and barrage of vibrant colors displayed, but the event it depicts, as well, just as Dean, himself, was challenged to create meaning through formal decisions from the frenzied and wild assassination: the media circus of Dallas chaos.

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