The other day, at a small cocktail party, a literary agent told me that he liked writers who knew and wrote for their audience. Our conversation soon sputtered out because I didn’t see any value in disagreeing with him. A few minutes later, a writer confided that he would keep working on a manuscript only if he could morally, ethically and esthetically justify what he was doing. For each of them the work itself could never be justification enough. It had to appeal to a larger power.
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There are multitudes of not very good reasons why Edwin Dickinson will never be a mainstream artist like his neighbor in South Truro, Massachusetts, Edward Hopper. Dickinson is unpredictable, if not downright strange, in some of his subject matter. You can’t figure out what he is trying to get at, and you suspect that perhaps he didn’t either, which isn’t very comforting. He is not modern and urban the way Hopper is. He didn’t know who his audience was and he didn’t paint for it. As contrarian as Hopper also was, I find it harder to say that about him. Perhaps it is because it is so easy to betray Hopper’s paintings by turning them into little stories that you can stick on the work, like Post-It notes.
The Hopper we have repeatedly been given is dependable. The partitioned space in his work is secure. Dickinson’s space is unstable and dreamy. He does capricious things. He never developed a style, but worked in a number of ways, which strike us as having little do with each other. He did studio paintings based on observation and invention, and labored over them for years. Others he did outside in a single sitting. He could make an erotic nude using only different shades of gray.
Dickinson once said of the paintings he did on the spot, “They are not art. When I work outside, I am as out of control as if I were a drunken man.” Elsewhere he said: “The seen distortion is what the thought did to the sight.” He studied with William Merritt Chase and Charles Hawthorne, but he was never an “impressionist.” He painted the dilemma of trying to make order out of change and disruption, which is the world in front of us. His premier coup paintings remain fresh and even startling.
As the painter and printmaker Michael Mazur astutely pointed out; “Dickinson could easily destroy the coherence of a straightforward subject like the side of a house, as in his ‘Stone Tower’ (1941), with a smeared patch of paint that might stand for a tree or simply for itself. Only in the paintings and drawings of Willem de Kooning have I seen such spontaneous disregard for coherence within the struggle for coherence.”
Painters know and love his work, and that is important to remember. Alfred Leslie has talked about his paintings, and the one time he met him in the Cedar Bar. Catherine Murphy has been inspired by his drawings, which he made without using contour lines. Artists have kept his work alive. That is his audience.
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Lois Dodd and Sangram Majumdar are observational artists whose exhibitions opened while Edwin Dickinson in Retrospect was still up. Dodd, who is in her eighties, works strictly from observation, and does her painting in one shot, while Majumdar, who is in his thirties, combines observation and invention, and often scrapes everything down and starts over. Both deserve our attention, as well as oblige us to consider how we experience the everyday world, the one that the mass media and pop culture relentlessly try to distract us from.
Although Dodd and Majumdar are devoted to depicting what’s in front of them, to seeing everything they can about the ordinary worlds they inhabit, they not only approach painting and subject in their own way, but they also speak, in some sense, to the fast and slow sides of Dickinson. For all three artists, realism isn’t a style, but a commitment to seeing and seeing freshly.
Dodd and Majumdar reject the sterile authoritarianism of Frank Stella’s, “What you see is what you see.” They also know that observational painting and representational painting are not the same. They have many things in common, and they might even look similar, but the space in representational painting, particularly if it is based on a photograph, tends to be conventional and flattened. With neither external nor internal pressures, there is little or no space for the imagination to blossom. Reality’s waywardness has been, if not banned, at least held at bay.
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All the paintings in Dodd’s show were done in oil on Masonite panels. Most are vertically oriented and are around fifteen inches in height. The paint is thin and dry. The subjects are taken from her immediate surroundings, which include rural Maine, a small town in New Jersey, and the view from her apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They include flowers, a meadow, laundry hanging on a line, a path to a house. There is a painting of a window on a snowy day, and another done on a rainy day.
You have the feeling that nothing dramatic happens in Dodd’s life and that’s okay with her because she has no interest in telling stories. The way the work is painted, as well as the subject matter, are candid and unequivocal. This doesn’t mean that her work is not mysterious and affecting.
Rather than setting up her views, Dodd finds subjects that are coterminous with the view she depicts. This is perhaps why she is best known for her window paintings, where the window frame is aligned with the painting’s edges. In these paintings, and the ones done of laundry on a line, the artist articulates a rectangle within a rectangle, evoking the idea of a painting being a flat thing, but refusing to deny depth. She wants both in her work.
The window underscores a desire for order, but everything in Dodd’s window paintings conveys the inevitability of change, disruption, and disorder. In “Rainy Window” (2011), fat raindrops have gathered on the windowpane. Are we trying to look past them at the world outside? Can we look at the drops without seeing the tree branches just beyond? In “Pink Geranium + Window Lock + Ochre Tree” (2011), the artist brings together three focal points, each articulated in a different hue. Coherence might be desired, but it cannot be achieved.
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Sangram Majumdar’s paintings are a synthesis of the observed and invented, and often involve setups. His work is psychologically charged, but not overtly dramatic.
Things have been scraped off the painting, leaving traces of their presence behind. It is as if the artist has equated seeing with layering — that in order to truly see what is there one must peel away the various coverings.
In “As if” (2012), the subject — a woman going through her black canvas travel bag — becomes a meditation on the dialogue between flatness and container. We are looking both at, and down at, her. A sharp underlying tension between volume and flatness runs along every seam and edge. The interlocking forms are abstract, even as each shape can be read as a thing. Planes and forms become tectonic plates pressing against each other. The balance achieved in the painting is momentary because soon all hell might break loose.
In “smoke and mirror” (2012), the artist orchestrates light and shadow, color (different hues of orange-reds and veronese-green), planes and inscribed lines to dance around each other, like seeing and memory. The artist puts all these formal collisions in the service of a moment in which a woman — is she dreaming or acting out — tries to put together a coat rack the wrong way. She holds a section of the rack aloft, with the top part backward, so that it resembles the gladiatorial weapon, the trident.
The coat rack’s feet and lower half divides the painting into a space on the left, in which the woman is standing half in light and half in shadow, and a plane on the right, which is painted and inscribed. By depicting this plane as a wooden screen on which we see a faded painting (or a painting fading), Majumdar underscores painting’s two dimensionality. The faded/fading painting relates the moment in the story of the Hindu deity Durga where she kills Asura. It is the source of Hinduism’s largest festival.
Majumdar equates painting’s site with sight, and identifies it as place of conflict between present and past, reality and dream, memory and desire. In “smoke and mirror,” he establishes a series of echoes and links from which there is no relief, no solution. His painting “fall into” (2011) focuses on one of the underlying questions running through the artist’s recent work: what to throw out and what to keep?
It is a question that the best artists in each generation wrestle with, and the most ambitious ones are never able to answer. Jackson Pollock got rid of the image, but then tried to bring it back in. Majumdar, who was born in Calcutta, India in 1977 and emigrated to Phoenix, Arizona in 1991, recognizes that culturally speaking he has two sets of memories, and that disruption is inescapable. Their relationship is unstable, and each intrudes on the other, often when least expected.
In a world in which many of the most respected philosophers and thinkers are advancing that we live in a time that is post-feminist, post-black, post-I and post-studio, Majumdar knows that notions of commonality are, at best, a utopian illusion, a rehash of the paradigm of the universal that was endemic to modernism.
At the same time, Majumdar is equally aware that essentialism and the return to one’s roots were simplistic views rife with impossibilities. By refusing to become a tourist in his own past and culture, he pushes back against mainstream culture’s unspoken expectation that he should be a spokesman for his ethnicity and present it with a palatable narrative. He has neither branded himself in that way, nor ceded his work to that kind of authority. He is one of the few artists of his generation to recognize that consistency (or branding) is the easy way out.
Lois Dodd’s New Panel Paintings continues until February 18 at Alexandre Gallery (Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, 13th Floor, Midtown, Manhattan).
Sangram Majumdar’s New Work continues until February 19 at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan).