David Cannon Dashiell (1952-1993), was taken by the plague in 1993, just four days before his 41st birthday. He gallantly hung on long enough to complete his greatest work, Queer Mysteries, now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art.
Queer Mysteries is a mural in the round that was the center piece of his 1993 exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute. Along with the mural, SFAI also presented a retrospective of his work. The show came down three days after his death.
Born in Tokyo, he was the grandson of the great detective story writer Dashiell Hammett. Dashiell’s father was a cartographer for the U.S. Government and the family lived in South East Asia from WW II until the height of the Vietnam War. Dashiell spent his childhood abroad until he was returned to the USA in 1968 when things became too dangerous for Americans in Asia.
He came out of the closet and discovered he was an artist in the early 1970s. He received his BFA and MFA from Cal Arts.
He moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s, where he met Barry Allan Byford, his partner and supporter of his work until Byford died, not from HIV/AIDS, but from a reaction to early drug trials in 1990.
In his final two years, Dashiell concentrated on Queer Mysteries. He had a major setback when his home was destroyed by a fire. He lost much of his work, his archives, his drawings for Queer Mysteries, and his art collection from artists he admired. Yet, he kept going, living long enough to complete his final show.
Dashiell took Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries frieze as his framework to explore queerness. Queer Mysteries consists of 28 acrylic emulsion reverse paintings on Plexiglas panels. While there are other full-scale variations on the Pompeian mural depicting a ritual initiation into the mysteries of Dionysus, Dashiell’s is the only one to shows an equation of Pompeii’s destruction with the looming catastrophe for a LGBTQ community threatened by prejudice and ravaged by a killer virus. Roman Pompeii is an apt metaphor for San Francisco in the era of the first wave of HIV, with its large visible LGBTQ population, bathhouses, sitting on a major fault line.
Queer Mysteries comically depicts the rituals for coming out of the closet while also poking fun at the 20th Century values using comic book art and B-movie imagery: lesbians are seen as cold sexy aliens, and gay guys cavort like sex crazed cannibals; it is a crazy commentary on the fantasies of homophobes everywhere.
With its grand scale and loud colors, it is a monumental work for the LGBTQ community and a message to the straight world. It makes a joke out of the ugliness of bigotry, ignorance and intolerance. The stifling limitations of good taste and LGBTQ assimilationism are objects of derision in Queer Mysteries.