What is the Dactyl Foundation? article by Jean Foster

What is the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities?

by Jean Foster


dac’tyl, n. [L. dactylus; Gr. dactylos, a finger, a measure of length, a dactyl.]

What is a dactyl? That is the question ever since the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities opened its doors on Grand Street last September. Before approaching the directors with the question, I looked it up in my dictionary. The only dactyl I knew of was the Pterodactyl, which, I’m convinced now, has little to do with the Foundation’s activities. Dactyl is Greek for finger. “Dactylic” describes a kind of poetic meter that, like the joints of the finger, has one long and two short parts (or “feet”). “Gallery” is dactylic. “Dactyls” are also some kind of mythical beings born from Rhea’s fingers as she clawed the earth in pain of child bearing. In Architecture, I’m told, “dactylic” refers to some kind of relationship between incongruous designs (a long and a short short design perhaps?). Confident that I was sufficiently informed on the meaning of “dactyl” to not embarrass myself, I proceeded to the Foundation headquarters, a nice piece of real estate across from restaurant Lucky Strike. True to the Dactyl name, their image is an agreeable combination of opposites: SoHo stainless steel mated with the massive carved doors of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The stone floor suggests ancient Pompeii and the light fixtures Mad Max. The receptionist is reading Darwin’s Origin of Species.

The artwork exhibited in the gallery is diverse, from beautiful to brutal, but all of the work combines a certain technical expertise with what seems to be absolute Pandemonium. But it works. That’s the weird thing. How does it work? “That question,” says Victoria N. Alexander president and co-founder of Dactyl, “is one of the subjects we’re investigating. How meaning is created out of disorder.” It turns out that the receptionist is actually the president.

The Dactyl Foundation is a not-for-profit organization formed in 1996 by Alexander and Neil Grayson. The directors make an interesting group: Patrick Markey, film producer and theater director, heads up the “Playwright Showcase” division of the Foundation (his credits include A River Runs through It, The Joy Luck Club, and more recently, The Horse Whisperer); David Sussman is an art fanatic and young attorney for PFP Insurance, who, together with aryt dealer, Bill Ward, has been instrumental in selling art work for the Foundation (75% of the proceeds goes directly to the artist, 25% goes to the Foundation to support more programs); John J. E. Swaine, CEO of the Media Bank, Hong Kong, handles events and promotions; and Sidney Smolowitz is the Foundation’s attorney and all around good guy. All the directors are strictly volunteer. None of the directors at Dactyl receives a salary.

Grayson and Alexander, owners of the property, make it available to the Dactyl Foundation rent-free. Most of the Foundation’s regular activities are confined to the store front gallery space. Grayson, a serious painter himself and curator of visual arts, uses the back rooms as a studio, but opens the area up for special events: musical performances, lectures etc. Dactyl is funded by private sources, and Grayson tells me that they operate on very little. He and Alexander (with the help of friend Michael Glazebrook) have done much of the construction themselves (i.e. pouring cement, installing fixtures, building walls, and installing the doors and windows), and they continue to do most of the menial office work as well as the mission planning and research. If they are thrifty regarding expenses, they are generous when it comes to awarding artists, writers and performers, offering as much as $3,000 per recipient. The Foundation exhibits painters Audrey Code, James Gilroy and Alexandra Wiesenfeld, and photographer DeDe Fedrizzi, and is actively looking for more artists.

In August Dactyl honored writer Steven Vincent for his essay “Listening to Pop” (Antioch Review, 1997) which concerns how the lesson of Pop Art is distorted as it is re-interpreted. Vincent argues that the everyday objects have come to re-present themselves as signifiers of a signified, reversing Pop Art’s intention. They now “represent” the Mythology of the era in which they were produced. Says Alexander, Vincent’s essay was singled out because he really “captures the eeriness involved in such a reinterpretation and reminds us how deeply invested the human race is in its will to believe.”

Dactyl also funds musical projects, supporting such performers as singer/composer Reese, known for his raw soulful style. Johannes Kreusch, an accomplished guitarist whose recent venues include Carnegie Hall, performed an acoustic set in October. According to the head of the Jazz department of Koch-International, Donald Elfman, who attended the Kreusch concert,

“The Dactyl Foundation presents a beautiful serene sound environment, personal and intimate. Its clear lively acoustics make it ideal for small chamber groups or for the individual instrumental voice.”

Rosalind of Ilett of Telarc Records said Kreusch’s performance was “sensitive to the nature of the performing space as well as to the personality and shape of the music, directing his playing to both, and thereby conveying his extraordinary intimacy with the repertoire to a rapt audience.”

The Foundation has plans to offer specialized programs for visual art. Sculptor, painter, architect, art historian and Dactyl advisory board member, Rocco Leonardis will host thinktanks and give lectures. He is currently authoring two books for the New York School of Interior Design as well as undertaking their comprehensive ground floor renovation.

Neil Grayson can often be found working at the gallery Wednesday through Saturday, between one and six pm. In September Grayson appeared on PBS together with the then-featured artist Audrey Code. When asked why he decided to dedicate so much of his time helping other artists, Grayson seemed like a mountain climber at a loss for an explanation. He circumvented the question by explaining what he looks for in art.

According to Grayson, successful emotive art represents a single “flawed” point of view. In the work he considers, he looks for the expression of structure which he says, “is the point of view.” He calls this kind of painting simply abstracted representations.

“While the representational aspects seem to lead the viewer to a definitive interpretation,” says Grayson, “a certain amount of ambiguity or obscurity allows for illogical associations which are necessary for creating an interpretative space. A painting need that to survive. Abstraction is the artist’s way of transcending time, order and space.” Grayson explains,

“I appreciate some chaos in a painting, but while it may invert a ‘normal’ painting system or rearrange it with intent to disrupt, ‘chaos’ itself is still dependent upon the intelligible system it subverts and absorbs. Without it you have nothing.”

Victoria N. Alexander is author of the award-winning novel Smoking Hopes and is also a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate School. She heads up the Dactyl essay competitions. In addition to papers on aesthetics theory/criticism, Dactyl is calling for papers dealing with what Alexander calls “phenomenal patterns” in writing.

“I feel that a new term is needed to describe patterns in fiction that cannot be explained in terms of natural, social or psychological factors,” says Alexander. “‘Phenomenal’ is useful because it describes the way in which these patterns are both perceptible as facts and somehow seem mysterious. Aristotle’s term for one kind of phenomenal pattern is a ‘coincidental cause’. Darwin called certain phenomenal patterns ‘whimsical’ correlations. If the natural laws governing such patterns are unknown, they produce a feeling of wonder, and some might suppose such patterns are not mechanistic but irrational and willed. It is the suggestion of such intentions that gives any work of art (or natural object) its inexplicable power. The author’s ‘ghost’ continues to haunt the text.”

If Alexander and Grayson sometimes seem young and idealistic, a little on the too-serious side, they also have a sense of humor. Grayson says that while he was working on the gallery many people stopped by to inquire about the Foundation’s programs. Grayson, always helpful and willing to talk to the public, was more than once brushed aside by those who mistook him for a “mere” workman. “Oh, what would you know,” one woman said. “You’re just a carpenter.”

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