Artist Profile: Mark Dancey

Detroit artist Mark Dancey has had many titles over the past 25 years - cartoonist, publisher, rock musician – and for over a decade now he’s sought to make a lasting impression as an oil painter. WDET’s Rob St. Mary introduces us to the artist as a new series of Mark Dancey’s paintings are about to go on display.

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In his turn of the 20th century home in Southwest Detroit, the décor shows little echo of Mark Dancey’s past in rock music. Today, he’s surrounded by fine art and a broad range of books. In fact, the writings of Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Gay’s 1728 play “The Beggar’s Opera” inspired Dancey’s latest show. It’s called “A-Hunting We Will Go” and it opens Saturday at the Re:View Contemporary Gallery in Midtown.

“They are painted in this limited pallet so it kind of looks like sepia photographs. It’s all logical. You want it to look like it’s the 19th century… in the 19th century they were all in sepia… they lived in a sepia world. So, it’s trying to be like that. And they’ll all… you are meeting those… that gaze… you’re meeting the glance above you… and you have to look… you have to pay attention.”

It’s a safe bet that if the younger, punk rock version of Mark Dancey met himself today, the young man might not respect what his older self is doing. That’s because Dancey admits he didn’t have much respect for fine art in his younger years. The Grand Rapids native began drawing as a kid. Shortly thereafter, he started playing guitar. Enjoying the immediacy that punk and graphic illustration offered, Dancey formed a hardcore band called “Born without a Face” which lasted for a few years.

Born Without a Face – Undertow

Around the same time, Dancey was attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While pursuing a psychology degree, he started working at “The Gargoyle” – the university’s humor magazine. Dancey says the magazine gave him a platform to expand as a cartoonist.

“And that was the thing that I took from U of M… just a hands on knowledge of comics and printing and publishing… that’s what to keep doing after that. Psychology? I didn’t want to do that (laughs). I didn’t want to do that. I had the degree in psychology but what I really got of U of M was the Gargoyle.”

As he was graduating in 1987, Dancey took some friends from “The Gargoyle” and started his own humor and music magazine. “Motorbooty” featured underground comics while lampooning music and pop culture. Dancey folded the magazine in 1999 after nine issues.

But in 1988, just as "Motorbooty" was getting established and his band “Born Without a Face” was ending, Dancey formed a new band with former local hardcore musicians.

“After hardcore just kind of ran its course and you are trying to find new ideas… that’s when we got together to form Big Chief.”

Dancey says Big Chief aimed to take influences like the MC5, the Stooges and Funkadelic and filter them through the band’s sensibilities. Seattle’s well-known indie label Sub Pop and major label Capitol Records signed the band. In 1993, Big Chief released a concept record that shows them at the height of their artistic powers.

“Mack Avenue Skullgame” was envisioned as a sort of soundtrack to a 1970’s style exploitation movie based on a real Detroit crime story. The album tells of a love triangle gone bad between a psychologist, a young prostitute and her pimp in the Cass Corridor in the mid-1980s.

Big Chief - My Name is Pimp

“You are trying to bring all the influences… all the things you like in one place and have it be this love letter to Detroit. I mean that one really is. Because it’s this Detroit story… and it’s this Detroit music.”

In 1989 Dancey’s band, Big Chief, opened for Soundgarden in Detroit. A few years later he got a call. The members of Soundgarden knew Dancey as an artist and wanted him to create the cover for their new album. That would be the band’s 1991 breakthrough record “Badmotorfinger”.

(Music - "Soundgarden")

“It’s alright. It’s a little contribution to the pop culture pile, (laughs). It’s my little thing on the pop culture pile… to put it in the rock and roll hall of fame. I’m the guy who drew the cover. It’s so nothing, Rob. I mean to me… it’s such a joke. But, whatever, I did it. I did a good job for them. They still use it. But it’s such a footnote kind of a thing.”

The iconic art has been used by Soundgarden over the past 20 years, including as the stage backdrop on the band’s recent reunion tour.

(Music - "Big Chief")

Throughout the 1990s, Dancey created rock posters for shows across the country as well as album art for various bands.

But by 1996, his time as a rock musician was ending. Big Chief disbanded. And Dancey says it was around this time that he thought about life post-rock. He says he realized it was time for him to evolve as an artist and move beyond the punk arrogance of his youth. He says he wanted to make substantial artistic statements worthy of gallery space. The self-taught artist says one of the first steps on the journey to becoming an oil painter was when a friend took him to the Detroit Institute of Arts and left him to study the technique of the Flemish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. But, Dancey says the biggest leap was to re-think the philosophy behind the work.

“If you want to try and do a painting… it has to be something different than that. If you’re just going to make a painting the same thing as a poster expect you use paint… what’s the purpose? What’s the point? Otherwise, just keep do silk screen printing.”

One of the first places to show Mark Dancey’s new expression in oil paints was Detroit’s CPOP gallery. Rick Manore founded the gallery. He says Dancey has great technique but his ideas run deeper than pretty pictures.

“Mark has an awful lot to say about the world. He’s deeply steeped in myth, anthropology… the human condition. I know he has a psychology degree that he says ineffectual and he doesn’t really use it but I believe he does. I think Mark’s thrust of his work… his meaning, his narrative… is equally as strong as his terrific technique.”

Manore says to fully understand Dancey’s work you need to appreciate his humor.

“Even if it isn’t obvious you can see it in almost everything, it might even be just his title. He’s a kindred spirit to Robert Williams, that way. Where he feels he must tell a multi-leveled story with simple imagery… with a limited amount of imagery… to jam pack a story, a myth, with multiple meanings. Not too many artists do that anymore and Mark does… and Mark does it better than anybody in this town.”

Since 2000 Dancey has worked in oils and mostly with round canvases. He says the symbolism of the circle makes sense to him.

“That’s the best shape. It’s the perfect shape. You start here; you come back to the same place. That’s the perfect thing. And it’s balanced and harmonious and it’s got all this philosophy into it of a cycle.”

In his latest series of paintings Dancey draws on the same circular shape. But in this show he’s using perspective to draw in the viewer in by placing the paintings higher on the gallery wall which he says it will allow for a deep, internal connection to take place with the various ladies depicted in the series, “A-Hunting We Will Go”.

“You take in somebody else into you… is through your eyes. Into your heart or into your brain… however, you take it in through your eyes. So that’s the idea… the idea of the first contact through the eyes.”

And Dancey invites you to make that connection when his latest show goes on display to the public at Re:View Contemporary Gallery in Midtown Detroit, Saturday night.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.

Video from Re:View Contemporary Gallery

Re:View Mark Dancey from Jeremy Olstyn on Vimeo.

Web links:

Mark Dancey Website:

Mark Dancey Paintings Website:

Re:View Contemporary Gallery “A-Hunting We Will Go”: