Jane Dickson, "Recent Works," Sept. 10-Oct. 4, 2003, at Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
That familiar roadside landscape, the mundane outskirts of Anytown, U.S.A., this is the subject of Jane Dickson's paintings. Her meticulously rendered works take the driver's-eye view, surveying a passing scene that is eminently recognizable and exceedingly strange. Dickson avoids the picturesque and the obvious tourist attraction, seeking out instead that which is endemic to the edge of the city.
These pictures lack those stimulating details designed for optical appeal, like reflections in windshields or windows. They lack people, for that matter, though they have more in common with the pensive moods of Edward Hopper than, say, the pinpoint accuracy of Richard Estes. In fact they share with Hopper a sense of the marginalized, the overlooked and neglected, and that particular eerie mix of artificial and natural light.
At the same time, Dickson is clearly focused on the formal aspects of her work, and the image may ultimately be viewed as a vehicle for an exploration of surface, texture and austere composition. Her subject matter is an integral part of her process, and clearly the most readily accessible, but to reduce the work to its content would be to miss much of what it has to offer.
For example, in the tightly constructed painting Heading In -- Lincoln Tunnel 2 (2003), two nondescript cars are seen just ahead in the tunnel, taking a slow curve in the gloomy phosphorescent light, something like driving inside a Richard Serra maze with Dan Flavin illumination. The red taillights are the only contrasting color in the predominantly yellow and green palette, which turns them into spatial markers. The scene is both claustrophobic and peaceful, something akin to an oversized tomb. The rough surface texture generates a haziness that contributes to a dreamlike state.
Heading In -- Manhattan Bridge offers an opposite spatial experience, a twilight view from the center of the bridge, its massive symmetrical girders forming geometric webbing above the dwarfed cars. The soft warm and cool grays set a mood of serenity and foreboding; an enveloping mist obscures the city beyond the glare of street lamps.
Confronted with this kind of painterly reportage, in the face of the familiar and predictable, one is compelled to. . . keep going. Like a fragment of Beckettian dialogue: "I could take another route into town, but why bother?"
But then, you would miss the severe classicism of Dickson's Motel II (2000), in which the pragmatic but beautiful structure, the last resort for the weary traveler, is strangely appealing. The subdued light, the neon lettering, the clunky architecture and, most of all, the slightly parted curtains of one window, are reminiscent of every roadside motel. What a perfect location for a Cohen Brothers movie. Again, Dickson's reductive rendering suits the occasion; the surface of the motel is palpable, the evening sky a perfect backdrop for the beckoning neon.
Dickson paints with oils on Astroturf, which produces at once an atmospheric and concrete image, similar in tactility to Richard Artschwager's paintings on Celotex. These paintings give another life to a material originally intended for a sports emporium or for those who can't grow their own grass, and resembles a magical transformation.
Astroturf is an ideal surface for Dickson's agenda -- paintings that are both ordinary and surreal, the seemingly obvious rendered in a minimalist esthetic. In Dickson's God Truck, the eponymous vehicle rolls along the highway, a massive form dwarfing all around it. In Dickson's variation on the religious icon, the almighty is everywhere, and at this moment, just about to pass you on I-95.
ROBERT G. EDELMAN is an artist and gallery director of Anita Friedman Fine Arts.