BRIAN DICKERSON’S CAIRNS
By Miriam Seidel
Brian Dickerson is an artist who knows how to wander, and how to make his way through uncertainty. Seeing the stone cairns of rural Ireland, he recognized them for what they were: mediators of mysterious places, markers for the lost, messages from the past. In Cairns, his new series of constructed paintings, he brings this understanding into a new form.
In each painting we come across a form of knotted angles, made of what is at hand in his studio—torn bits of wood, fragments of old work—as a cairn is made of whatever nearby stones can be found. These cairn-forms rise out of fields of thick, monochrome paint that suggest dried wheat, snow, dark skies.
Their pointing angles seem to re-draw the expanse around them, skewing it with some internal magnetism. Long grooves radiating outward bring to mind lines of energy, like the ley lines of the British landscape.
Many of these forms—the ones that seem to open onto dark interiors, or reveal splashes of red on their inner walls—suggest that they may hold secrets like those of Bronze Age burial cairns. All of them testify to some accrued meaning that can be sensed, but not spoken. The cairns know what they are, and they know where they are. Taciturn and still, they stand but do not reach out. Yet if we look closely at them, they may help us find where we are—even standing in a dark and empty field.
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.
“Land is a reliquary for past memories or experiences.”
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.