On ViewAlexandre Gallery
September 9 – October 23, 2021
Inaugurating Alexandre Gallery’s new space on the Lower East Side, this exhibition of twenty-seven paintings spans the imposing length and breadth of Lois Dodd’s career. Modest in scale—works here range from 16 by 10 inches to 66 by 48 inches—their scope is broad, from intimate flower portraits to dramatic wintry visions of the Delaware Water Gap. There’s a quiet exuberance to Dodd’s paintings. Rooted in quotidian details, they situate us in the familiar matrix of everyday life, which, as Lucy R. Lippard observes in a catalogue essay, Dodd renders constantly fresh. Lippard concedes that to come to know a place, “painting for years on end” is even better than walking.
Dodd uses masonite panels for her smaller works, with thinly applied brushwork that lends them a transitory immediacy, while larger works on linen tend to emphasize geometrical structures, doors and windows, and cast shadows. Shed Window (2014) imposes its vertical symmetry over the main gallery, fixing us in its implied gaze, but there’s a vernacular contingency to Dodd’s structures that undermines overall order; geometry doesn’t take precedence over depicted content. Shed Window’s minimal grid is leavened by the delicate interplay of lavenders and greens that animates its irregular shingles, while Door, Window, Ruin (1986) sets walls at an unstable angle. The gridded panes of Steamed Window (1980) are complicated by irregular patches of condensation that interpose the informe, a layer of unstructured interference that’s also an abstract painting, over the view beyond.
This tension between abstraction and fresh observation keeps Dodd’s paintings rooted in the unstable matrix of the world at large. The discursive composition of Laundry Line, Red White Black Pitchfork (1979)—whose run-on title echoes its sequence of assertively syncopated objects—calls to mind William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow (1923):
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rainbeside the white
If there’s something on which everything depends in Dodd’s painting, it’s that pitchfork, which, in its network of abstracted verticals and diagonals, exemplifies the fusion of European modernism, the new objectivity of cubism, with the American landscape—what Williams and Alfred Stieglitz termed “the local.” Beyond mere depiction, they enjoined American artists to forge unconscious, psychological bonds to their daily environment. With an ethnographic instinct, Dodd defines “the local” from New York City to New Jersey and Maine, forging artistic links to Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Arthur Dove. Her closely observed studies of everyday flowers should be seen in this context.
If Dodd’s matter-of-fact painting of wood-framed doors and windows can evoke Donald Judd—and they do—the random wood strips applied at odd angles to Front of House & Ladder (1985) call to mind Ellsworth Kelly’s early “ready-made abstractions,” compositions based on posters juxtaposed on the Paris metro, or on shadows captured as they fall across steps in a staircase. Here, the grid of windows on the vertical wall, also irregular in its cropping, provides reflected images of what’s behind us. We’re suspended, as in a Mondrian, as Dodd seems bent on overcoming her limited view to create a totalizing image.
The easel scale of Dodd’s work belies such ambitions and her engagement with larger themes. Back of Men’s Hotel (from My Window) (2016), a quintessentially New York image, is also a comment on homelessness. Windows are emblems of both shelter and loneliness. As Faye Hirsch comments on Dodd’s window paintings in her thorough and sensitive 2018 monograph, “one feels her presence and solitude—her subjectivity—most particularly in these works.” Enlarging the scope of an incidental view, Dodd connects her own isolation to the communal loneliness of the homeless. It’s not far-fetched to see another connection to Ellsworth Kelly, to the colored windows of his chapel in Texas, which evoke a universal order as they cast luminous, moving shapes on its interior walls.
Significantly, the show’s one self-portrait, My Shadow Painting (2008), takes the form of Dodd’s shadow, cast on grass as she paints. While she has included mirror reflections in her paintings, she prefers this more indirect, indexical method of self-depiction. Its modesty is consistent with her understanding of painted forms as transparent layers of lights and shadows; in another contingency, it’s set near an early painting of cows whose own luminous shadows echo hers, affirming the egalitarian ethos at the core of Dodd’s approach.
If layered light and shadows endow the architecture of works like Sun in Hallway (1978) with buoyancy, Dodd’s night paintings take on a more portentous aspect. One work, on display in the office and not officially included in the show, juxtaposes a brightly lit highway tunnel, under looming mounds of the New Jersey landscape, to a full moon overhead; it tantalizes, expanding Williams’s poetic excavation of the New Jersey scene into something Melvillian. This exhibition’s overview of Dodd’s ongoing career leaves us eager to see more; she’s overdue for a full retrospective.