Dakota X ran a house painting business in Provincetown in the 1990s to support an artistic career. Back then, Dakota went by the name Deborah Martin, lived in town with women friends, and began taking the Polaroid photographs that ended up on display at the Driskel Gallery, which occupied the front of what was then the newly restored Schoolhouse Center.
“I used photography as a medium when I lacked studio space or time to focus on painting and drawing,” Dakota says. They had graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Tufts University in 1992, “but I’d been drawing since I was able to hold a crayon,” Dakota says. Growing up in Wayne, Pa., outside Philadelphia, they loved looking at paintings by “The Wyeths — Andy and Jamie. My first painting on canvas was around age eight,” Dakota says, at which point “my mother gave me her easel and paints.”
Schoolhouse Gallery in 2010 and later Kobalt Gallery in 2013 featured work from Dakota’s “Narrow Lands” series, nostalgic, haunting images of a Provincetown on the verge of a spree of teardowns and gentrification. A few years later, “Portraits of Autism” at AMP Gallery focused on paintings capturing childhood’s vulnerable yearnings.
Dakota first started using photography as inspiration for painting during a 2006 road trip from Provincetown to Los Angeles. “I set out to document small towns across America in Polaroid,” Dakota says, and the resulting images were shown at the Phyllis Stein Art Gallery in L.A.
Now Dakota lives in unincorporated Pinyon Pines, Calif. outside Palm Springs, where they’re building a painting studio. They describe the rugged environment as the perfect setting for muscle cars with big engines, which are central subjects in the paintings in the “Internal Combustion” show that opens Aug. 4 at William Scott Gallery.
“Pinyon Pines is sort of like old P’town, a hippie throwback with artists and musicians but on a mountain and without a post office,” Dakota says. “There are no gas stations out here. It’s a big thing for a car to run out of gas in the middle of the desert.”
Every muscle car, Dakota says, has a story: “I once traded my BMW for a 1989 Chevy Silverado 1500 454, big and black, with a V8 engine and large tires. It made a lot of noise, and I just loved it. I felt like myself in it.” People drive these cars until they’ve broken down and then leave them on the landscape. “Cars are just littered across the desert,” says Dakota.
Dakota drives around Southwestern deserts hunting for abandoned muscle cars that can be photographed in situ and used, along with objects nearby — a school bus, a stove, even a small plane, also abandoned — as the basis for a painting. The cars become objects of veneration tinged with the erotic.
Photography is part of Dakota’s process, but as reference. Otherwise, they purposefully keep photography and painting separate. “I am in no way attempting to be a photo realist,” says Dakota, who has also worked as a filmmaker. Indeed, there is something cinematic about these stranded-in-the-desert depictions. The viewer imagines a Sam Shepard — or a Dakota X — ambling by.
Sky Valley Nova is an homage to a dusky blue Chevy Dakota encountered outside Palm Springs: “I used to pass by it every time I came home. The car was just beautiful, sitting on someone’s property but not being used. They sort of disintegrate over time. I finally photographed it.”
When a scene ends up inspiring a painting, “It’s all about the light and the shadow,” Dakota says. “When I’m on a road trip through the desert, I get everything I can possibly get. I shoot and don’t leave anything out.” Wonder Valley Ford presents a layered scene of the vehicle, pivoted left of center, interacting with a horizontal and vertical landscape of industrial debris under a gray-blue sky. Deep shadow signals the unrelenting noon Sun.
Dakota is a meticulous artist, working one painting at a time rather than jumping from one to another, preparing pieces that will eventually be exhibited as a series. “Internal Combustion” is a double entendre, connecting Dakota’s art and life. “In an internal combustion engine,” says Dakota’s artist statement, “the engine partially converts the energy from the combustion to work.
“One might say I have teetered on the edge of self-combustion,” Dakota writes, the result, they add, of a lifetime of gender identity incongruence.
This is their second Provincetown season exhibiting as Dakota X. The transition, they say, “has affected me in a very positive way.” Getting their emotional and physical health together has allowed them to focus on painting. “It’s all connected,” says Dakota.
Light and Shadow
The event: “Internal Combustion,” new work by Dakota X
The time: Opening Friday, Aug. 4, 7-9 p.m., continuing through Aug. 16
The place: William Scott Gallery, 439 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free