David Alexander Flinn

by Annu Subramanian

Are You There God? It’s Me, David.
STOP LAUGHING AT DAVID ALEXANDER FLINN’S JOKE. Walk into his current exhibit and you’ll probably head straight to the back wall, where a gate—more accurately, a simple constitution of thin metal bars—hangs. The only indication that this piece is something more than a generic bulwark is the rod of white light bisecting it: less dazzling and more obtrusive, in the way a flickering neon “COFFEE” sign might be. That something so simple might have greater significance is intriguing. That it might be the entrance to heaven is sobering.

“It’s a representation of the perfection we’re all working for,” Flinn explains on a recent day in New York City, then wryly adds, “But when we get to the pearly gates it’s made in China.”

The sense of paralysis or diminished wonder that occurs when high expectations meet reality is a recurring theme in David Flinn’s show, Nor Here Nor There, currently on display at Envoy Enterprises in Bowery. His sculptures, paintings, and photographs challenge notions that doing well and keeping your head down will pay off in the end. To Flinn, the world belongs to those who hope less, work hard, and act independent of authority. If you believe heaven is built with more than a truck bed’s worth of scraps from Home Depot, the joke’s on you.

To convey his message, he re-imagines classic fables, exploring how they inculcate children into society and cultural expectations. When you’re young, magic is simply believing a bedtime folk story.

But what happens when we wise up?

The central sculpture in Nor Here Nor There is a sword cast in
a 500-pound concrete block. Lacking any trappings or regalia of a medieval sword, and crudely severed where a handle should be, the message sent from this piece’s negative space is clear and it is discomfiting: these days, a gentle hand won’t rule the land.

“You have to bleed for it,” he says.

The piece defies conventional morality and the ethical traditions Flinn says are passed on from generation to generation. Where trust in government might have once been a coveted moral, that trait today has rendered us complacent, forfeiting our responsibility and our preferences to institutions.

“It’s a forever changing world and situations are too specific for institutions such as policing and government to understand,” Flinn asserts.

Though he is 26, his disillusionment goes beyond youthful rebellion. With friends in jail for years awaiting a court hearing (Flinn says they’re innocent) and 
a healthy sense of paranoia—a symptom, he says, of growing up in New York City in the ’90s—he’s been let down too often by the systems we are taught to trust.

This has also drawn the artist away from the city. His studio in Greenport, Long Island, is secluded and lush, which inspires the minimalism and naturalism in his art. And Flinn’s work is in good company: Wassily Kandinsky spent time painting in the North Fork of Long Island as well, and Mark Rothko is buried nearby.

Flinn tends to tie stories from his life with his pieces, rapid-fire calling upon themes of his life ranging from numerology to summers picking tomatoes in Italy to Dante’s Inferno to cowboys and rescuing feral cats with his sister. Despite the whimsical premise of his work, he takes even his irony seriously. New York is over, he assures, and a quiet life on a farm in Italy is his dream.

But six words in the exhibit’s description rescue what would otherwise just be a gallery of dispatches from a present-day dystopia:

“THE MAGICAL IS INTERNAL AND PERMANENT.

When you’re young, inexperienced, and considerably shorter, magic is pervasive and a good story is alchemical. But life experiences collect like sediment, building an ever-heavier guard against that wonder we once felt. Disillusionment might be as eternal as a 500-pound block of concrete but it can be torn from our beings like a sword from the stone.

We just have to bleed for it.

Photographer: Kristiina Wilson at KristiinaWilson.com. Stylist: Martin Waitt at MartinWaitt.com. Groomer: Jessi Butterfield for eamgmt.com.