Lois Dodd
Garden Paintings at Fischbach Gallery

In the nearly fifty years Lois Dodd has been exhibiting—twenty of them at Fischbach—she has avoided subject matter that might be isolated by the label "feminine." No children, no still lives, no interiors of the Architectural Digest [italics] variety, no pretty floral arrangements. She has taken her Modernist convictions into the Maine woods and into the open hills of the Delaware Water Gap but hardly into the confined world of gardens. So it is that this month’s show of gardenscapes comes as both a surprise and a pleasure.

Dodd is a reticent painter who maintains a certain modesty toward her subjects. Her work has never relied on bravura. She spends no effort trying to bloat a motif beyond its natural perimeters.

This is not to say that she does not exploit the potentials of scale. She certainly does. (Each of the large paintings in this show were worked up from small panel studies.) But she works always as a painter, never as a rhetorician or an advocate for anything beyond the work itself. She does not argue; she simply presents. In Dodd’s work, there is only the act of seeing made palpable through love of craft. In the hands of a gifted painter, that is large—and enlarging—enough.

By nature, all works of art are fictions. Dodd’s garden pieces are not reports on botanical reality. They owe nothing to the photograph but everything to Dodd’s characteristic inventiveness.

This is not work for logo-lovers seeking the assurances of a a specified style. Styles come and go. Dodd is too far down her own path to worry about where the cat will jump next. In the ‘50’s, the high tide of Abstract Expressionism, Dodd began establishing a vantage point from which to turn a modern eye on visual motifs. It is no small thing to have stayed true to both the formal concerns of that period and her own love of representation.

In this exhibition, formal arrangements and stylizations suit a sense of play and design that is unconcernedly hedonistic. Dodd’s pleasure in her medium is as evident as her pleasure in the colors—great scoops of purple, fuschia, cinnabar green—that come to life and draw breath in flower beds.

Dodd’s idiosyncratic realism is deeply infused with expressionist brio. Two small paintings of red tulips display a whimsical unconcern with the assumptions of the likely viewer. The point here is to convey the shock of first bloom. We are jolted with unmodulated reds, simple shapes of pure cadmium lined up like soldiers. They spring forward from a field of bright greens and hang on to the front of the picture plane. This is the aggression of life that appears as if from nowhere before we are even aware that the growing season has begun.

Bees are all over Dodd’s canvases just as they are in real gardens. They nod slyly to the insects in seventeenth-century Dutch still lives. But those precise, delicate symbols of transience would have a hard time recognizing themselves, or their thematic mission, in these disarming whirs of black paint. That they are major players is evident in the titles: Echinacea, Cow Flower and Bee; Black Hollyhock and Bee.

Bees cavort like goats under cone flowers and through the alizarin stamens of Joe Pye Weed. One does a capriole over the prickly purple cannon balls that shoot skyward in Globe Thistle. There goes another, straight into the fretted blooms of a cow parsnip. One more holds the viewer’s nose at its mercy.

More than humor is at work here. There is also a reluctance to indulge in any lingering cultural temptation to emblematize the natural world. No one could spend much time consulting the Bible of Creation through Dodd’s eyes. Readers of the Book of Nature would be hard-pressed by that ultramarine triangle hovering over the creamy blonde surface of Cow Parsnip and Butterfly.

The moralization of flowers, that was once part of the general moralization of nature and the raison d’etre of historical flower painting, is forestalled by the kinds of flowers featured here: huge weeds (cow parsnips, Joe Pye, thistles) and the common cone flower, cousin to the daisy. Hardly useful as emblems of the vanity of earthly riches. Nevertheless, in their unstudied, quirky beauty, the products of Dodd’s pictorial wit are themselves a godsend.

Viewers come away from these paintings with a renewed sense of what she shares with Milton Avery, another Modernist who refused to relinquish representation. They have in common an untroubled clarity and directness, a confident sense of form with nothing arbitrary about it. Her garden paintings create the impression that this multum in parvo [italics] has been abstracted from observation. They look simultaneously improvised and observed. The result is a garden world both magical and reasonable, much nearer light verse than material verisimilitude.

Until the end of the month, we have on view something of what poet Louise Bogan was referring to in her lovely line: "Thank heaven for art that has nothing to prove."


February 1999

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