Canvases With a Taut Resolution Between Representation and Form

To state that Lois Dodd’s landscape paintings, now at the Fischbach Gallery, reconcile realism and abstraction is to reiterate an artistic platitude. Any painter–or, it should be said, any painter of substance–working from observed phenomena takes into account the formal peculiarities of the medium when shaping a picture. Yet the line Ms. Dodd tiptoes between these junctures is given such a taut resolution in her canvases that the aforementioned commonplace bears repeating. In her paintings, both the fidelity of representation and the imperatives of form operate at full kilter. The painter and critic Fairfield Porter found the terse balance of Ms. Dodd’s art intriguingly “ambiguous.” If this is true, then it is an ambiguity as lucid as it is uncompromising.

The dozen paintings at Fischbach, most of which date from the mid-1970′s, were painted near Ms. Dodd’s cottage in Cushing, Me. Most of the canvases are predicated on an emphatic verticality, primarily in the reach and thrust of trees, which is offset by the sharp, spiky juttings of their branches. Suffused with a clarifying light, the pictures lead the viewer into them with a magnetic persistence. Yet this pull is thwarted just as adamantly by a pictorial space that elbows its way forward to the surface of the painting. In the painting Maine Woods, Small (1974) the clearing in the distance marshals the back-and-forth syncopation of a group of trees in the foreground. We become aware, and pleasurably so, of how Ms. Dodd has pressurized her imagery and fitted each composition within the boundaries of the canvas.

The rigor of Ms. Dodd’s vision is indebted to the Spartan art of Piet Mondrian and, in her facture, the paintings of Paul Cézanne. With brushwork that is impassive and to the point, the pictures evince a keen eye for synthesizing complicated information. Her to-the-bones sobriety risks a certain dryness–Ms. Dodd makes a sobersides like Edward Hopper seem cuddly–but this is only a liability in terms of the artist’s palette, which tends toward a flat uniformity. Even then, one could not imagine (or want) Ms. Dodd jazzing up her colors. To do so, one feels, would disrupt the laconic equilibrium of her art.

When looking at the paintings, we’re never less than confident that we are standing on solid ground. Nature, for Ms. Dodd, isn’t a jumping-off point–an arbitrary motif upon which she suspends her pictorial concerns–but a deep-seated commitment. It is significant, I think, that the human presence makes itself felt in the images, to the extent that it is felt at all, by objects: a pitchfork or a chair or the back of a canvas. Her landscapes are less locales we traverse than domains to which we have been granted an audience. Her trees, in particular, have an intractable self-awareness–as if they were harboring their own preternatural secrets. Untouched by romance, Ms. Dodd’s woods are accorded a modicum of privacy and a maximum of deference. What strange, wonderful paintings they are. Lois Dodd; The Woods: Selected Paintings from the 1970′s is on view at Fischbach Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until March 11.

Ellis Pushes His Art, With a Taping Knife

Stephen Ellis’ abstractions, currently on view at Von Lintel & Nusser, are hard-edged and streamlined. With their overlapping geometries and layerings of oil and alkyd paint, the pictures have a step-by-step unflappability. Mr. Ellis paints with a taping knife, the kind routinely used for plastering walls, and utilizes it both as an additive implement and a subtractive one. He’s capable of skimming paint into planks of immaculate density or scraping areas of paint away, resulting in grainy surfaces that reveal–always effectively, often glibly and sometimes evocatively–prior states of each composition.

What makes these efforts Mr. Ellis’ most interesting to date is that process is no longer its own expertly tooled reward. The artist is beginning to enliven his all-over compositions with specific relations of form. Each canvas begins as a gridlike scaffolding which is then accentuated by decisive overlays of incident: rectangles, stripes or flaglike blocks of pattern. These geometric hubs are tethered to the painting’s infrastructure while staking their claim to independence.

By locating an irregularity contingent upon repetition, Mr. Ellis is pushing his art in a way that generates real excitement. Well, some excitement anyway: When he introduces slippery, ersatz brushstrokes or squeegeed blurs into his grids, he’s just another post-painterly technician banking on affectation and theory to get his pictures by. (That the mimicking of photographic effects with oil paint is an ironic comment on pictorial cliché hasn’t prevented it from becoming a cliché of its own–and a peculiarly arch one at that.) Yet these paintings show Mr. Ellis turning away, tentatively but with interest, from the sleek reassurances of facility to the entanglements of a more open-ended art.

Mr. Ellis’ best painting is a horizontal canvas–all of them are untitled–divided into four vertical sections. Within these columns, regimented stripings of deep blue set up a cinematic field of rhythm punctuated by lustrous rectangles of white. Traversing the upper portion of the canvas is a band of alternating yellows that serves as an abrupt counterpoint of color, temperature and tempo to the painting’s underlying framework. Here Mr. Ellis constructs an almost architectural space, endowing the painting with a magnitude that is new and welcome to the work. If the rest of the paintings are thin or irresolute in comparison, they nonetheless display an artist who is learning to follow and focus his curiosity. Stephen Ellis is on view at Von Lintel & Nusser, 555 West 25th Street, until March 18.