On ViewBruce Museum
April 2–May 28, 2023
In Lois Dodd’s comprehensive exhibition Natural Order, now on view at the Bruce Museum, the artist’s unique approach to observation is laid bare. Dodd’s paintings of modest subjects read like field notes, recording her perception of the immediate environment. The frenetic energy and physicality of her work reminds us that making sense of the world is not an instant phenomenon. It involves asking questions, pursuing hunches, stepping away and coming back again.
The exhibition starts with Shadow with Easel (2010), a depiction of the twin silhouettes of the artist and her easel projected onto grass. The easel shape creeps towards the artist who, raising her brush to the canvas, holds the easel at bay. Tiny tufts of grass nibble at the shadow’s edge, softening the shape, bringing our attention to its ragged contour. The painting explores the push and pull between the observer and her environment, the artist and her tools, light and dark, warm and cool.
In Woods (1981), one feels positioned on the edge of space. Dappled light creeps into the woods, turning trees into ladder forms which lift our eye upwards towards the canopy while also blocking the distance from view. A yellow and green area beyond the woods feels held back: like us it remains outside looking in. The painting appears built up over time. Hatched layers of brown and red accumulate. Then, finally, patches of gray-pink light are applied confidently to the trees, recording a sudden eureka moment of light. One of Dodd’s great abilities is to make slow periods of looking appear instantaneous.
Behind a row of narrow branches in Opening in Ice and Light on Path (2002) a field of lavender-tinted ice expands over the painting. Across its center a frozen slab is cut from the surface. This dramatic incision echoes Dodd’s painterly process of carving out space, both in the picture and the environment. Here, the long negative shape is filled with reflected trees and sky, a lively pool of zig-zags and blots.
View of Three Trees, Purple Mountain (1977) is a small work made quickly. Into a purple and blue mountain peak Dodd describes a group of trees, their bodies painted wet into wet, each stroke picking up a bit of the surrounding paint in the snowy ground and mountains. Dodd knows how to make space on the fly, both deliberate and on the move, trusting her hand with intuitive marks. It is a hushed work with an active surface, another painting paradox.
Two floors of windows sit flat against the canvas surface in Front of House and Ladder (1985), staring ambivalently at the viewer. Dashed between them are wood strips holding a wrap of tar paper to the facade, moving the eye across like a pinball tossed by flippers. A ladder is propped up to the side, creating a shallow pictorial space and suggesting a grid slightly out of joint. In a lower window, a cluster of trees are reflected, creating the odd feeling that the building is looking past us towards the distant woods. Between the house and trees, the viewer and artist stand.
Painting from life means responding to a world of constant motion. Dodd’s sensibility emerges from this fluctuation, developing out of remarkable improvisation, discernment, and focus. Close observation of a subject risks producing an image fixed in the apprehension of the viewer, controlled and petrified by the pursuit of knowledge. Dodd is a rigorous observer, but her subjects remain alive. The observed world and the observing artist are in a conversation, each shaped and swayed by the other.