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Dancing with the Dark
By Miriam Seidel (Curator and critic, and a Corresponding Editor of Art in America.)
An encounter with one of Brian Dickerson’s constructed paintings, with their slowly accreted surfaces and mysterious openings, asks us to move with the artist from what is seen to what cannot be seen. The explicit elements—visual, tactile, and structural—guide us beyond themselves to a region with no descriptors, which stymies words while allowing experiences of uncommon depth.
Surface. Dickerson’s surfaces feel at times like walls, enclosing something inside, and at times like turbulent atmosphere, offering immersion. Their final effect reflects a long process of painting layer over layer—work that is often unmade through scraping, sanding or heat torch, then painted over again. Bright base layers are covered by darker ones, yielding nuances suggesting repainted walls, or smoke and embers, or stormy skies.
It should be no surprise that Dickerson began as a landscape painter, who was deeply imprinted with the broad and striking views of his childhood home in upstate New York. His abstract surfaces can recall the eerily atmospheric nightscapes of Ralph Blakelock and the heavily worked allegorical landscapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Broken crosses. The paintings on view in this solo exhibit at OK Harris Works of Art are often divided into segments by intersecting elements that Dickerson has described as crosses—but crosses that are “fractured, broken, sometimes upside-down.”[i] This association strengthens the sense of these pieces as reliquaries, constructed as they are of wood, and having the depth of shallow boxes. The artist has spoken of how the death of his older brother in childhood led to his building small memorial crosses as a young boy, as well as how this experience of loss led to his questioning and leaving behind the religion in which he was raised. So it’s fitting that the “crosses” here are incomplete, in a sense marking the works as deconsecrated religious objects.
Cuts. The straight lines that bisect works like Gypsy and Winter Solstice have been created by cutting into already-painted surfaces with a circular saw. As with his sometimes-violent erasure of surfaces, these lines show the authority with which the artist engages destruction as part of his process. Indeed, many of Dickerson’s finished works have been cut down from larger pieces, or even pieced together with parts from themselves or other paintings. The cool umber surface of Korngold, for example, was once the warm yellow half of a diptych. The cuts themselves, in addition to marking off subtle yet definite boundaries between areas, also offer lines as negativity: thin abysses into which the painted surface momentarily disappears.
Holes. In every one of these paintings, a small, dark opening is sequestered in the arms of the broken cross that’s been fashioned out of thin wood strips, cuts or other intersecting elements. Artfully recessed, these openings seem to beckon us into an immeasurable darkness that might be located underground or in deep space. If Dickerson’s paintings are reliquaries, they are probably empty; at least, there is nothing there to be seen. I imagine these small orifices—suggesting open doors, cave mouths, tomb entrances—as allowing a breath to be felt, exhaled from somewhere unknowable. Others will have their own feelings in response to them. It’s here that the pieces are fulfilled in their uniquely deconsecrated essence; holding an actual object in their recesses would imply a faith like the medieval craftsman, that a piece of the material body could point to the immortal. Instead, we are offered only a sense of the intangible, just out of reach.
Scaffolding. The recesses are often surrounded by a scaffolding of wood strips, creating eaves and protective channels that cradle and shadow them. Unlike the surface cuts, these scaffolds have a swooping, improvisational quality. These elements seem to function as shims or wedges—handmade efforts to open spaces between planes, often extending beyond the edges of the painting as if to build leverage for their task. As such, they imply great tensile energy, straining to maintain that open zone. This echoes the great, sustained work involved in making the surfaces of these eloquent pieces: a patient, meditative, but not easy process by which the artist, like his medieval counterpart, offers us an equally meaningful experience.
[i] Quoted in Reflections on the Paintings of Brian Dickerson, Eve Bowen, essay in Brian Dickerson: Constructed Paintings, Kouros Gallery, New York, 2011
Shows at Seraphin Gallery - Brian Dickerson's rugged, mysterious sculptural paintings
By Victoria Donohoe
For The Inquirer
The wonder of Brian Dickerson's recent rugged 3-D paintings on wood in his solo "Constructed Paintings and Drawings from Ballinglen" at Seraphin Gallery is the immediate sense of quiet and mystery they impart. While he was, of course, informed by the remote, artist-friendly locale in northwest County Mayo, Ireland, which he expects to visit again next fall, Dickerson's original inspiration was the excavation of an Owasco Indian settlement he watched at age 13 near his childhood home in upstate New York - the colors of the layered soil, the wooden grids, the hidden artifacts.
This Philadelphia painter favors dark, all-over earthen incrustations in the many sculptural works here, some of them with their scratched, picked-at surfaces. Such slowly made painted pieces are often divided vertically into two unequal registers, each filled out with recessed compartments. Some are commanding, both in size and in refusal of easy solutions, and possess a resolute strength. There's a certain amount of painterly expressionism in such work, often including a small zone of bright color. But Dickerson's work tends to be largely monochromatic.
A painter's drawings often bring us closer to the artist, especially if his drawings simply record more personal preoccupations. And that's what Dickerson's individualistic graphite drawings, not directly related to his painted pieces, achieve. A handsome show.
April 27, 2012
In the past I've remarked on how hard it can be to see contemporary figurative art in Boston, and how different this is from Philadelphia, where good figurative painting seems to be everywhere.Philly's painters also manage to ignore the science-based abstraction of many Boston artists, with their silence coming as a subtle rejection of that interest. But I stumbled on two shows this month, one in each city, which argue against these regional distinctions. Neither has Philadelphia's figurative leanings, nor does either slide into the biomorphic abstractions that dominate galleries in Boston. Paul Shakespear and Brian Dickerson have both mounted shows that focus on material and surface qualities, with similarities in tone and composition that stand for another, shared direction in American painting.
That being said, both shows make a direct reference to other countries. Paul Shakespear has titled his show Corrientes, after a regional capital in his native Argentina. Brian Dickerson's works are all from a residency in Ireland, and I find it telling that each artist could find such similar geometric shapes under the spell of such different places. This tempts me to see a set of shared values in current American painting as the link, values that emphasize a deep surface, a long viewing experience, and craft.
It's difficult to imagine Corrientes and Ballinglen giving equal inspiration for the transparent and forceful rectangles of these shows. I would also like to think that Philly and Boston's architectural similarities might have inspired these paintings, but that just isn't what's happening. There is certainly precedence in art history here, but the complex surface quality in these shows is in direct opposition to the work of Piet Mondrian, the late paintings of Barnett Newman, or other modernists who share Paul Shakespear and Brian Dickerson's geometric interests but who strove for flat surfaces. I'm left hoping that the surface depth of Dickerson and Shakespeare's works is a sign of a more long-lasting visual interest in art, one that's different from the figurative dominance in Philly and the biomorphic obsession of Boston. Two artists don't make a national movement, but to see these shows in the same month in such different artistic climates gives me a flicker of excitement.
Nate Risteen - The Boston Art Review
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Memories of Home
By Edward Sozanski
Inquirer Art Critic
The subdued and vaguely mystical paintings that Brian Dickerson is showing at the Mangel Gallery evoke the Schoharie Valley west of Albany, N.Y., where he grew up. Specifically, the paintings refer to the Helderberg escarpment, which runs through the region.
The references are oblique because the paintings, all on wood constructions, are abstract. Assembled from pieces of aged wood, with tiny compartments cut into their faces, they project the character of reliquaries. The “relics” in this case are the artist’s memories of his boyhood in a geographically striking and archaeologically fertile place.
Dickerson achieves spiritual resonance less through form than through color, or the lack of it. His most effective paintings are done in soft black, dark brown, gray and bronze, all of which impart sober religiosity.
Flashes of color, such as scarlet or bright green, enliven several works, and several others are done mainly in lighter hues such as yellow or pale peach and white. Yet the darker ones carry more emotional weight because they appear to be more deeply felt, or remembered.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, October 21, 2005
Artists Shine In Works Rugged to Muted
By Victoria Donohoe
Inquirer Art Critic
Brian Dickerson and Sarah Bowen, exhibiting their paintings in tandem in a show at West Chester University, both approach their subjects as if from a great distance in time. And each of these college art teachers- he at Drexel University, she at Vermont College- besides having a distinctive personality and approach, thinks of art as transformation and as self –discovery.
Mystery abounds in the rich and intriguing imagery of Dickerson’s three-dimensional abstractions painted on his wooden constructions. The most striking of these were inspired by his boyhood recollection of attending the excavation of an ancient settlement site of the Owasco Indians, ancestors of the Iroquois, near his family home in New York’s Helderberg Mountain region, near Albany.
Besides Dickerson’s work being more directly physical and rugged than Bowens and having a typically muted palette, w look at these “Helderberg Paintings” as if suddenly we see the subtleties that the weathering of time produces even in the most mundane of surroundings.
Some of the individual pieces in this series stand out. But that’s hardly the issue. What matters is the visual aggregate, the mass of material.
These are works that, for the most part, speak directly to the emotions. At their best, the shapes are dense and considered; they have impact and complexity, this Philadelphia artist tempting the viewer to follow the unexpected twists and turns of his handling of the painted wood. The interplay here is between geometry and instinct. There’s an evident will to maintain a high degree of casualness as well as to elaborate and embellish.
By Contrast, Bowen of Northern Vermont is an artist who has gone her own quiet way. And this show gives insights into her developing work, especially her fine color resonances. Tenderly and carefully done, her paintings on paper have a tonic effect on frayed nerves. I especially like the way she allows color areas to find their own tremulous shapes. This quiet little gem of an exhibit will travel.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, November 26, 2006
A Visual Record of Discovery
Art at its highest level shows us who we are and who we might be. Courage leads the way: it takes courage to explore the geography of our own experience, to understand how it has shaped us and then be willing to reveal it to others. Sarah Bowen and Brian Dickerson have individually built their lives around a committed studio practice and a strong sense that their visual artwork is a form of inquiry. Their work is fostered by their engaged teaching practice and by a meaningful and supportive dialogue with each other that spans more than a dozen years. As an artist myself and a friend to both artists, I am thrilled to be involved in this ongoing conversation about how we move and direct our lives as creative people.
What resonates in the journeys of these two artists goes beyond shared interests and the formal qualities of their work. This traveling exhibition gives us an opportunity to look at the work of two individuals who have made very conscious choices about the kind of artistic lives they would pursue. It is the integrity behind the cumulative decisions to grow as artists that has created such authentic visual expressions.
Sarah Bowen leads a contemplative life in northern Vermont, and her luminous, intimate paintings represent a search for inner wholeness and integration. Brian Dickerson, who lives in Philadelphia and upstate New York, explores remembered landscapes in his iconic three-dimensional paintings on wood. Both artists explore the themes of life, death, and renewal. Both use subtle forms in their work and have a complex layering process involving the use of deep color harmonies that express the depth of our human experience.
Remarkably, what we are witnessing in the work of these two artists is a visual record of ongoing transformation. There is a sense of emergence and integration as Bowen's and Dickerson's visual landscapes evolve and change. Their dialogue with each other supports and clarifies this transformation.
In Bowen's paintings, the images of planets rise and overlap; the circle form becomes a rich and clarifying symbol for the self, and celebrates the potential that we all share for change and growth. Coming from a deep understanding of the ancient traditions of spiritual art, her work reveals a very personal experience of transformation through the subtlety and quiet depth of its imagery.
The heavily layered and reworked surfaces in Dickerson's painted wood constructions reveal a deeply felt process of exploration. We see Dickerson's imagery moving from visual references of the Helderberg Mountain landscape of his childhood toward a more inward, subjective expression of the world. Each work contains hidden forms and apertures suggesting almost inaccessible mystery. Seen as objects, these paintings redefine our notions of sacred space and provide an opportunity for contemplation.
Artists help us make sense of our world. In an ever changing and unsettled world, it is especially helpful to see how we might integrate our experiences and choose to live our lives. These paintings are at once about mystery and discovery, yet to discover their qualities will demand time and attention from the viewer. Sarah Bowen and Brian Dickerson have undertaken journeys which make the unseen visible, the unknown known. Their visual imagery shows us how an inner life can ultimately connect us to the whole world.
Judith Perry is an artist and writer living in midcoast Maine. Her paintings
reflect an interest in our connection to nature while her writing
explores how we create our lives as artists.
My conversation with Brian Dickerson took place over several weeks via email and telephone calls as he prepared for an exhibition of ‘The Helderberg Paintings’ at Mangel Gallery in Philadelphia. In some ways this conversation began many years ago while we were in graduate school. Even then the region of New York State where he grew up was an important component of his work as was music. He brings to the work a variety of experiences that he has continually cultivated over these many years.
Whether looking at the formal issues of a nearly monochromatic palette, the scale, surface or structural elements there is also and equally important such influences as the physical region, music and memory. In addition to all that, there is the working process which is in itself an important element of the work. Our conversation touched on all of these things and more.
Archaeological references as you will see are certainly fitting here. The dictionary defines archaeology as a systematic study of human antiquities as revealed by excavation. This systematic exploration is what I think Brian has pursued. He has studied and explored the region and his own experiences creating a vocabulary of images which are at once deeply personal yet they move us far beyond their references. He relayed a story to me that when he was a teenager he longed for and challenged himself to "find a way to capture the essence of what one sees and senses in a way that goes beyond how landscape is typically handled." I think he has certainly met that challenge. Following are excerpts from our conversation.
Judith Perry: The first thing that came to mind when I saw these pieces was that, to me there was a whole world in these images.
Brian Dickerson: I think a good place to start is with the titles of the work. Each one is named Helderberg with another title that follows. i.e. "Helderberg – Vroman." The word Helderberg refers to the mountain region in upstate NY where I grew up. It is largely an agricultural community and I was surrounded by the rural architecture of homes, barns, sheds and outbuildings. I always found the rough quality in those structures appealing. They reflect and record the seasonal changes of weather, encroaching vegetation, animals, and the ongoing struggle to coexist with the forces of nature. Even if one is not a farmer my sense is that people there have a much stronger connection to the land and the forces that shape it than do most. Economically the area has always struggled. It’s not unusual to see expansive homes and abject poverty side by side.
JP: Could you see the mountains everyday?
BD: I grew up in the Schoharie Valley of upstate NY which is right in the middle of the Helderbergs. So whether walking to school or looking out the window, winter storms, floods, camping with friends, or sledding on the cemetery hill, all those activities took place under the watchful eye of those mountains.
JP: This notion of 'place' is something we should talk about. 'Place' for you goes beyond the landscape to memory. It seems as though the Helderberg Mountains served as a kind of 'container' that held your experiences growing up, the fact that your paintings are now constructions seems fitting.
BD: I definitely agree on the importance of place and also the connection to childhood. There are many events I feel free to comment on but others that are private. What I can tell you is that the loss of someone, especially someone very close to you at an early age gives you something that you can’t get any other way. There are other experiences worth mentioning. One is the excavation of an Owasco Indian settlement site near my home that I witnessed as a young boy. I remember watching the archaeologists uncover artifacts from burial pits and how the site was marked into grids of wooden stakes and string. I also remember the different colors in the layers of soil and wondered how they knew where to dig to uncover the artifacts and locations for the longhouses.
JP: What is it about the Owasco Indian Settlement you think that has so captivated you?
BD: I was a young boy growing up in a small town and the discovery of this Indian settlement was big news. At that time there was no grave repatriation act. It didn’t occur to anyone to ask how they would feel if someone started digging in the local cemetery looking for "artifacts" of their ancestors. I had gone through a period of trying to understand the death of my older brother and seeing this excavation brought a level of consequence and reality to that. I was the first time I became aware of my own mortality. It was my starting point.
JP: Do you think you are on your own 'dig' in a way-- digging up your own memories?
BD: I don't think I'm on my own personal dig as far as memories go. My memories are pretty clear and in some cases quite vivid. I'm not sure I'd want to remember more even if it were possible. But definitely would agree that I'm on a dig in terms of trying to uncover a means to express the sites, memories and emotions that the landscape there holds for me.
JP: The titles and the 'found' components are often a direct connection to memories, the references are not something the viewer would have any idea about but it is that personal reference that gives the work its power. I'm thinking of the piece you call "Gilboa" for example, there is a story there.
BD: When I was a teenager I worked as a dishwasher and cook at the local diner. The diner served as a kind of unofficial communications center. In the spring when the water was high from snowmelt and constant rain, a call came in to tell us that the water was over the dam. The dam in question is the Gilboa dam. It’s a very large dam about 30 miles away and serves as a reservoir for NYC water supply. Needless to say if the dam ever failed it would be the end of our town. And even with the dam intact floods are not uncommon. I used to walk down to the bridge in the village and watch the water along with other townspeople when it was approaching flood stage. It’s an amazing sight-that power and force when the water runs heavy and fast. I was also able to hear the rush of water in the smaller streams behind our house when they would flood. There is also a definite smell to high water. So, that's part of the background information I 'experience' in doing this work. Not in a conscious way but definitely in the mix.
¨I hope the work prompts the viewer to contemplate their own experience leading to a kind of introspection that touches on much deeper questions and meaning."
JP: Tell me about your working methods.
BD: I rely almost entirely on intuition. I responded once to a similar question ¨ I just do them." The paintings are constantly being reworked. Even the structural or carpentry part of the work is disassembled later in favor of a composition that works better. So things are always being rediscovered and reconfigured. I've used the analogy of archeological methods for my working process. Of digging out or excavating the surface underneath. But I also use another method, that of planting/harvesting. Its not lost on me that while I might be picking strawberries at one of the local fruit farms, the original native American settlers were doing the same thing. So in some sense nothing really changes. And I suspect someday my little town will be excavated by some future generation.
JP: So, lets talk about Autumn’s End and the process it went through.
BD: This particular painting began by enlarging the size of an earlier painting. I wanted to see how the size of the work might change the composition. So I had the basic forms and structure in place. While I sometimes make a very small sketch it undergoes a lot of changes as the work is built. I use pretty standard materials including birch veneer panels or mahogany, pine supports, wood glue, finish nails etc. Once the construction of the work is complete I might study it for a period of several days, weeks or months. I use the tools my dad used when I was a kid including an old Homecraft bandsaw, table saw-even a nail set. Not that it makes any difference to anyone looking at the work. I mean how would they know? It's just a nostalgic way to stay connected to those earlier times watching my dad or brother work on projects of their own. I sometimes have a preconceived notion of what the finished work will be even in terms of color. But it usually ends up going into a different direction. For example this painting started in very bright yellows and reds. I then work on top building up the layers and textures.
Inevitably things go badly and I'll scrape the underlying paint layers away. Sometimes I just use paint scrapers, but at other times I end up having to use a heat gun or sander. At first I was very frustrated by this as it signaled to me an inability to create what was the vague image I had in my head. But I realized later that its all part of the process and in spite of removing (sometimes very large quantities of paint) the residue is still very much a part of the work and it speaks directly to the cycle of planting, harvesting, and excavating. As the work progresses the initial shapes and forms begin to change visually because of the addition of color. I also tend to reconsider some of the shapes I first started with. So it was with this one I ended up sawing through different pieces, taking apart certain sections and reassembling others. It’s not a precise exercise. For instance when something that has been glued is removed I'll cut it with a utility knife and then hammer it out. Sometimes the wood splinters or breaks but that is all part of the process, and to mereflects the kind of harsh treatment the land receives as in plowing or the effects of a flood on the soil. So it’s not like building furniture. The found objects or what I call "artifacts" are added early on. In this work the horizontal piece at the top and bottom came from the sides of a window frame from a house that burned down years ago. Its off a narrow seasonal dirt road and is now almost completely overgrown and hidden from view. The placement of these artifacts is very important to the composition of the work. But it’s also a way for me to mark the painting by using an object that comes directly from the land in the Helderbergs. Once again it’s not something that the viewer would be aware of let alone care one way or the other. I mean it might as well be a piece of wood from Home Depot. But it's physical identification to the land and the exposure over time to the elements is what makes them important to me and the work.
JP: What about the recessed areas?
BD: When I first did them I was reluctant, almost afraid to consider their "meaning." The very first painting of this group, which was started about ten years ago, included the first recessed area. It was obvious to me that it needed to be there but I didn't have a rational explanation for it. Of the few people who have seen them I got different responses. Usually in the "door, window, hidden, altarpiece” category and one with a sexual reference. I wouldn't argue with any of them. This particular recessed area was re-cut a few times and elongated to almost the bottom of the work. Initially I would say it has something to do with burial. It may also a way of entering the interior of the work and perhaps an invitation to contemplate those things that are hidden or revealed. That leaves the surface areas. Painting those is chaotic at times. It’s not pretty. It tends to be a very long process. As the colors are applied I begin to think of particular events, seasons or times of day, specific senses like smell (manure on fields, smoke from burning leaves in Fall). But I have to stress that while painting I'm not that specifically aware of those references. In fact when the best painting occurs it’s usually a pretty frenzied state and outside influences or references seem lost. It’s only after that process is over I begin to see the associations. I have had paintings where the color was quite interesting but seemed disconnected from what I know or are familiar with. So I'd move away from it by scraping it out or painting it over. There is a point at which I know the work is coming to a close. It’s here that I'll spend days or months contemplating the work and begin to make small sometimes imperceptible changes. This all takes place within the formal construction of the work. So there is a quiet sense of conflict. But in the end I hope they compliment each other. At times significant changes will present themselves in a rush....even after studying it for a long time. I'll also work into areas that might not be noticed in a slow and deliberate way. At that point it’s a more nurturing approach to the painting. One reason I use wood is that the painting process is pretty aggressive. Canvas would not hold up. There's also the ability to work the wood into different shapes and forms. I also carve into the surface to reveal the different layers of paint. As for the title, I didn’t begin expecting to see something associated with Autumn. But the period of time between Autumn and Winter is one of my favorites and where some of my fondest memories lay.
JP: There are other influences to touch on -- music, I know plays a big part but what about your art historical influences?
BD: My early art education was pretty conservative. As a teenager I studied with a wonderful man--Mr. Jahnke. He introduced me to art history as a means to discover solutions to my own work. "See how he did that? He had the same problem you're having. Now go fix yours!!" His favorite painters were Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. He never spoke of DeKooning, Kline or Pollock. I copied paintings from an art history book I kept taking out from the library. The usual--Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet. It was on my first trip to Philadelphia that I saw the work of Ad Reinhardt and Franz Kline. It sure threw me at the time. I knew then things were never going to be the same. I remember reading Art In America in high school art class (ignoring the project at hand) and the impact of seeing the work of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden’s oil/wax paintings for the first time. Of all the influences the one I've spoken of least is probably the most important. I grew up surrounded by music. Both my parents were music educators. We had access to just about any instrument imaginable and all of us played at least one instrument. My dad taught instrumental music and could play anything. There were dozens of recordings available to us as well. The first time I recall making a direct connection between art and music was as a teenager listening to Debussy's "La fille aux cheveux de lin" - The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. I did several drawings and paintings of this imaginary girl. Another composer, Gustav Mahler -- I don’t know how I could begin to describe the effect of his music on me. I think the darkness usually associated with his work is also very hopeful. The darkness is more obvious. The hopeful takes a little digging.
JP: It is no doubt that we all carry our experiences and bring it to whatever we do. Brian’s images are not easy, they will not tell you what to feel, in fact you might have to dig a little but that is their challenge and their gift. Looking at this work I step into this world and find that for a moment we have a shared experience. I don't have to have grown up in the Helderbergs to know that we are all deeply bound to a place and that the themes of planting, harvesting and excavation are relevant to my own experience as well.
Brian Dickerson resides in Rensselaerville, N.Y. and Philadelphia, PA.
Contact Seraphin Gallery, 1108 Pine St. Phila. PA. 19129 or www.briandickersonart.com
Judith Perry is an Artist and Writer, living in Midcoast Maine. Her paintings reflect an interest in the idea of relationship and connection. While the writing explores the creative process and her on-going interest in how we build our lives as artists.
To see some of her paintings go to www.judithperry.com. To sign up for her free newsletter, “Artists and Writers in their own words’ send an e-mail to email@example.com