A photograph of the gravestone of Jam Master Jay, the late DJ for Run-D.M.C., will soon hang in the Spotted Pig, the chic West Village restaurant whose investors include Jay-Z and Bono. The artwork won’t be recognizably about Jam Master Jay, however: it’s an enlargement of a closeup of the dash between the DJ’s birthdate and the date of his death.
The photo is part of a series called the DASH Project, by conceptual photographer David Matterhorn. The artist will show a selection of his oversized abstract prints in his first gallery show, which will include the "dashes" of musical giants such as Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. The exhibit opens Wednesday and runs through October 8th at John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in midtown New York.
Matterhorn, inspired by his next-door neighbor, the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, had been working with ideas about mortality for years when he contracted Lyme disease in 2008. Complaining to a friend about the condition, his friend said, "Dave, life is just the dash" – what you do between the dates of your birth and death. If you want to make your dash about this illness, he said, that’s your decision.
The photographer immediately realized that he wanted to shoot the "dashes" of both ordinary people and well-known artists, thinkers and entertainers. A guitarist, he has particular interest in the headstones of musicians. The project features dashes for Thelonious Monk, Aaliyah, Jim Morrison, Serge Gainsbourg, Dean Martin and many others, in addition to famed figures from other fields – Harry Houdini, Oscar Wilde, Jackson Pollock, Bruce Lee.
Matterhorn says the dashes often have an uncanny way of encapsulating an entire life. Pollock’s, for instance, has a speckled blue-green tint from the lichen growing on his headstone. The larger-than-life jazz great Miles Davis "has the largest dash I’ve ever seen," on an enormous headstone in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery, the noted resting place of many musicians.
"Miles was so heavy," he says.
McWhinnie, a rare-book dealer, has a history of curating rock-related exhibits; he’s shown artwork by Kim Gordon and Richard Hell, among others. Matterhorn’s project intrigued him from the beginning, when he saw the Pollock image. "It was quite astounding," he says. Blown up, "it could have been a photo of the cosmos."
Matterhorn keeps an ever-growing wish list: he wants to shoot dashes for Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, and he plans to make one for Amy Winehouse. He has created an iPhone app that estimates how long your own dash will be.
There’s tremendous energy at burial sites, he says – so much so that he claims his camera equipment sometimes refuses to work. His equipment was so balky at Aaliyah’s grave, "my assistant wouldn’t go back to the area." He’s learned to make an offering, leaving flowers or pouring out a bottle of wine: "You have to give a token of your appreciation."
Matterhorn uses the Find A Grave website constantly; he knows what it’s like to be a fan. In Seattle, where he shot the headstones of Hendrix and Bruce Lee, dozens of people had gathered by ten in the morning to pay their respects to both men.
"It’s as close as anyone can get to these artists," he says. "Even 40 years after they died, it’s an important outing for people, to connect with them. I hope my work helps people connect a little, too."