A Playpen Within A Battlefield: The Paintings of Lois Dickson
A TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES usually plumbs artcritical’s back catalogue for subjects of renewed relevance. In this instance, we present an essay for the first time here by our publisher/editor David Cohen published last summer by John Davis Gallery and the Painting Center, to greet Dickson’s show of new work at the Studio School running there from June 12 to July 16, 2017. (8 West 8th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, New York City.) Illustrations are of Dickson’s recent work currently on view on 8th Street.
Who got to decide that musicians play and painters work? Instrumentalists have to practice alone for hours, and then perform under nerve-racking scrutiny, slaves to the beat. We can all picture the perspiring face of a rock guitarist or classical pianist screwed up in paroxysms of concentration. Painters, on the other hand, can take their time in the serenity of their studios, perfecting what they want us to see. And even when angst or indecision is their expressive mode, these choices are “performed” at leisure—recollected in tranquility, as the poet puts it.
Lois Dickson makes us think a lot about time and space, work and play. Her compositions are rich, dense and busy. Form and color work double-time to denote depth while exuding no-sweat exuberance, the brush dancing on the plane. This summer  saw the culmination of a sustained trajectory in her painting journey from which no less than two solo exhibitions were to be selected, opening in as many months, first at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY and then at the Painting Center in New York City. A woman in her 80s whose paintings routinely stretch to six feet or more in a given direction, the sheer physicality of her output is prodigious. But adding to this, and what truly inspires awe, is the sense of progress—a striving for clarity while maintaining complexity—that characterizes her oeuvre.
A ludic morphology lies at the heart of Dickson’s endeavor. Elaborations of shape and excavations of depth animate her pictorial intelligence in ways that are at once playful and earnest. Intelligence is the operative word here, for Dickson always presents us with both a plethora of information and persuasive principles regarding its organization. Singularity and multiplicity cohabit in scenes imagined and observed. Her brushstrokes are at once measured and fresh. Surfaces are lively but form has definitiveness and weight.
When, earlier this fall, I had the chance to examine an extensive group of recent paintings in her Columbia County studio something that became very clear was the particular nature of development in her work, whether within a given canvas or from picture to picture or across this segment of her mature oeuvre. Work and play are equally and powerfully in operation. Unprogrammed improvisation is the dominant vibe, and yet the progress within and between canvases suggests its own logic. You can read the story of her thoughts in a body of canvases; stop that narrative at any given picture and formal and thematic teleologies thread their way through its immediate predecessors. But jump from the first to the last within a sequence, and even though recurring motifs are unmistakably Dicksonian and each picture carries the DNA of her touch and palette, an aesthetic gulf opens up, suggestive of fearless experimentation, of unbound formal curiosity, of an artist who refuses the straightjacket of a “trademark” style.
What struck me quite forcibly was the modernity of Dickson’s progress—modernity, that is, as opposed to postmodernity. OK, there’s a leading role for the Pixar/Disney fish character Nemo in her almost George Condo-like painting of that title from 2016, and a jocular sense of Mike Kelley run amok within the pictorial space of Las Meninas in Procession (2015). But the accumulating jumble of Dickson’s imagery is irony free. She lets forms and feelings dictate a scene, and yet there is always direction. It seems, therefore, not a coincidence that – contemporary references inferred above notwithstanding – the formal touchstones for Dickson’s style are firmly rooted in the canon of early and mid-20th century modernism. The plasticity of her facture can recall Marsden Hartley, George Beckmann, or Philip Guston in Tough Guy (2016), What Happened (2016) and Over Easy (2015) respectively, or the smooth impasto of phases in the 1930s paintings of Arshile Gorky, de Kooning or Stuart Davis in cleaner surfaced pictures like Glimpse or Citrus Pull (both 2016). In a singingly crisp, almost hard-edged canvas like the admittedly unfinished Pas de Deux (2016) the Orphism of the Delaunays or the Suprematist phase of Liubov Popova come to mind. And, of course, Matisse, Picasso and Bonnard are frequent associates of her brush.
All this is not just, to my mind, a question of taste, of her sensibility gravitating to this lush extended revel in the art history of painterly experimentation. Rather, it suggests that her painting agenda is motored by modernist purposiveness. Think of the number of images in Dickson where it almost literally seems like a machine is driving the forms in some kind of vortex or oscillation. Roundabout (2016), a delicious little painting of 10 x 10 inches, has a Futurist feel in the frenzied spin of wayward blades. In Over Easy it seems like engine parts are extruded from rotating giant screws chugging away in the center of the composition. But I’m not suggesting Dickson as some kind of neo-Futurist: the mechanical is always offset by the organic in her shape vocabulary, recalling the primary role of plein air landscape and surreally improvised but botanically exact explorations of plant life in her evolution as a painter. In fact, a dialectics of the organic and the geometric is itself an active current within modernism, one that allows an artist of the next century (ours) to continue the great experiment, in earnest, without recourse to irony.
In the spirit of this dialectic, I see the quarry of Dickson’s quest as a kind of biomorphic cubism. Biomorphic in that shapes follow internal laws of growth in their abstraction and reinvention. Cubist in that time and space are facetted in multiplicities of perspective, in that forms are seen from different directions simultaneously, in that deep pockets of space cohabit with insistent formal flatness. Another smaller canvas, Gallery, is almost a dramatization of this kind of play. A Prussian blue form is seen in duplicate on what almost reads like an Expressionist stage set with intimations of mirroring or a receding back stage space hidden behind flaps. The shape can read variously as an extending hand and forearm or a fetal form. This is one of those “clue” paintings that empowers the viewer to find similar instances of pockets and facets in more ambitiously abstracted and complex larger compositions—and they abound. The triumphs in Dickson come in moments of “push-pull” in Hans Hofmann’s famous phrase, in which credible, emotionally resonant depths are struck within the necessary-seeming literal flattening of the picture surface, in which illusion and actuality arrive at a state of détente in their perennial struggle—a playpen within a battlefield.