Artist puts dent in tradition with 'ooh-ism'

Bogged down in life's routine? Feeling as uncreative as a sneeze next to Beethoven's Ninth? Tired of being tired over figuring out what to do next?

Performance artist and wondrous wild man Denny Dent won't stand for this. With dazzling on-stage athleticism, and sometimes with three paintbrushes in each hand, he splatters and speeds his way through painting six-foot tall portraits of rock icon Jimi Hendrix, Albert Einstein, and Bruce Springsteen. Each in eight minutes.

From start to finish, with music blaring, he's dipping into paint buckets and splashing latex paint everywhere. Mr. Dent ends by making a hand-splat signature in the right-hand corner of each canvas.

Before and after this attention-grabbing performance, he gets to the point of his exuberance. If you think art is just the province of wild painters like Dent, or dancers, or singers, you are wrong, he says. You have to lift your creativity over the wall of your accumulated disbeliefs, and snap out of it. Don't think of art as a country denying you a passport.

"The object of the performance is not only to show something new and exciting," Dent says in a characteristic burst of words, "but to stir up creative energy.

"First, the audience thinks it's a joke, a mess. This is not going to work. But when I do a series of paintings, I talk a little between each one. And they can see this works. Now, they are believers; I have a platform, and they will listen. My message is that art has nothing to do with paint. Art is not a technique, but an expression from your heart."

In different formats, Dent has performed his "Two-Fisted Art Attack" on the "Today Show," for Jay Leno, at the retirement party of pro football's John Elway, for Microsoft's Bill Gates, for Colin Powell and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Other subjects include businessman Donald Trump; Bill Marriott, president of the Marriott Corporation; and performances for IBM, Hallmark Cards, and Mercedes-Benz. For many years, Dent performed on college campuses, and he now performs more often as a motivator for corporations and for entertainment venues. Discussions for a possible television special are under way.

At Woodstock '94, Dent performed before a thundering crowd of 300,000. Newsday commented that his act was "the weekend's first defining moment. The prayers of the crowd ... had finally been answered."

To humorously explain the moment of creative insight Dent says he experiences, and hopes others will too, he reaches back to an early 1960s comedy TV show, "Car 54, Where Are You?" One of the characters, Officer Gunther Toody, was forever being struck with an idea. "Ooh, ooh!" he would exclaim, his lumpy, goofy face suddenly alive with an idea. "Ooh, ooh!"

Dent calls this, "Ooh-ism."

"What if I put this there, or move that there?" he says, laughing. "Ooh, ooh! Why? I don't know. Ooh, ooh! I just gotta do it. It's the great curiosity, the awe of it. Physics and metaphysics can be at odds until you look at them from a broader perspective, then all of a sudden you see everything connect."

If Dent does a custom performance - painting someone for the first and only time - he does his homework. He gathers information about the person, selects appropriate music, and does preliminary sketches. Then he brings it all together on stage. New York "Mayor Giuliani is an opera lover," he says, "so I painted him while opera played, and Sarah Brightman was singing, too."

Despite Dent's growing popularity, and prices beginning at $25,000 for a performance and as much as $6,000 for a painting, he sees his performing life and everyday life as not too far apart. A trim, athletic man fired by kinetic energy and ample wit, he calls his paintings a "by-product." He assigns more importance to his underlying message.

"If I make a mistake on stage," he says, "I just roll with it. And I'll stick my foot in my mouth a few times, but I'm not leaving until they get the message."

Seated in his comfortable home in a Denver suburb with his wife, Ali Christine, Dent says, "When the money is gone and the applause dies down, all you have is how you feel about yourself, and if you want to feel good, you have to do something you love. If you do that, the love will show itself in the medium of your choice, and you can't help touching other people."

Dent's "Art Attack" is rooted more in popular culture than the fine arts tradition. He succeeds outside the museum and art-gallery world as something of a lovable, acrobatic performer. He is perhaps a product of swiftly moving times, yet the invitations keep coming because of the overarching value of his message.

"Sometimes criticism hurts a little," Dent says of his few critics, "but everyone has different perspectives. If you're not causing some kind of impact with your work, you aren't doing much. As long as people are touched by what I do, I'm gratified." After his performances, people have come to him with tears of gratitude in their eyes. Letters to him have told of people changing careers because of hearing his message.

Bill Haney, a former executive vice president at The MacManus Group, the parent company of ad agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (DMB&B), featured Dent twice at management meetings. Also the founder of Momentum Books in Troy, Mich., Mr. Haney says, "We brought in people for a worldwide management meeting for DMB&B, and had to have someone who was creative and would do something exciting for 200 people from different cultures."

Dent did his attack dance with paint while creating portraits of John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr., Beethoven, and Hendrix, all splashed on canvas to appropriate music. Between the portraits, Dent urged the managers to think differently, and be fearless. "People were literally dancing in the aisles," Haney says. "Denny's a passionate communicator who realizes there aren't really many cultural differences of any significance between people and generations. He works from the heart and is a very special guy."

Dent survived the rough road of rebellious youth in Berkeley, Calif., in the '60s. He skipped college to be a street artist. He was never far from painting or feeding his energetic curiosity, which continues to animate him today as an avid reader and embracer of ideas. "As a kid I would sometimes tie my right hand to my belt," he says, "and do everything with my left to try to find different ways to approach things."

It was while Dent was living in Las Vegas that he did his first public performance, a somewhat emotional tribute to John Lennon at a l981 vigil put on by a radio station. He convinced the promoters to let him up on the stage - his first time ever - and while Lennon's music played, Dent began furiously painting his portrait. He says the crowd went wild. After the show, a promoter asked him the name of his show. "Show? What show?" Dent said.

Not too many nights later Dent opened ahead of the band Steppenwolf in Los Angeles and was paid $50. Band after band included him on stage and soon he was known as "the rock 'n' roll artist."

Talking now in a blizzard of ideas, Dent stands in a downstairs room in his home before a huge painting of Hendrix, carrying his theme of "seeing differently" into educational possibilities.

"What's that Robert Frost poem?" he asks. " 'Two roads, and I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference?' What if we said, 'No, we want you to take both roads,' and the answer, or the direction, is not just one way, but there is more than one way to approach an answer. Consider all the approaches to an answer."

Occasionally, Dent will deliberately fool an audience to amplify his message. "I painted Jimi Hendrix in Las Vegas once," he says, "but it was a mess. The audience was cringing in their seats. I told them I never said it would work all the time. People started to leave. The music comes back on. I rush on the stage, throw some more paint on the painting, spin the piece, and they realize I painted it upside down. They go crazy."

Ooh-ism.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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