Dodd’s Enchanting Nudes: Manhattan Meets Maine

The American painter Lois Dodd (born 1927) has been a

familiar presence on the

New York art scene for almost half a century. In the 1950’s, just

out of Cooper Union, she was one of the artists who founded the Tanager Gallery

on East 10th Street, which some of us fondly remember as the best of the

artists’ co-ops in that period. In recent years, she has exhibited regularly at

the Fischbach Gallery and was also on the art faculty

of Brooklyn College.

Since the 50’s, she has also been a part-time resident of Maine.

Both the Maine landscape, with

its brilliant light and dramatic skies, and the shaded interiors of its old,

weathered houses, have indeed been her principal

subjects. To these subjects she has always brought a tough-minded command of

modernist pictorial form that owes as much to the aesthetics of abstraction as

it does to the direct observation of nature. Until now, however, hers has been

a pictorial oeuvre largely devoid of

figures.

This is one reason why Ms. Dodd’s current exhibition at the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland,

Me., has been something of a sensation even

among her devoted admirers, of whom I have long been one. For this is an

exhibition called Women at Work: Recent

Paintings , and its nearly 30 mostly small-scale pictures positively

abound in female figures. All of them are seen in a pastoral setting of

dazzling summer sunlight, radiant greenery and patchy shadows, and all of them

are as naked as Cézanne’s bathers as they attend to their chores-hanging out

the wash, digging in the garden, sawing wood, etc.-or resting from their

outdoor labors.

At first glance, the entire show is so amusing and so

enchanting that it takes a while for the sheer weight of its painterly

invention and the richness of its pictorial allusions to fully register. What may

initially seem like a high-spirited jest turns out, on closer acquaintance, to

be something else: painting that harbors many layers of meaning and

implication. Are there some sly references to Manet’s

Déjeu-ner sur l’herbe and Matisse’s odalisques as well as Cézanne’s

bathers to be discerned in these lyrical evocations of naked women doing their

daily chores in the open air? Youbet. Is there also to be found a spirited feminist subtext in

the work-an unspoken indictment of the way male painters have traditionally

treated the subject of female nudes in a landscape? I suspect there is, but if

so, it’s implied in an undercurrent of irony and humor. There is no ideological

posturing in the work.

What there is in abundance is painting of extraordinary

vitality and imagination. It is as if the artist had set herself the task of

reinventing the entire genre of nudes-in-a-landscape out of her own experience

in half a century of summers in Maine.

In an essay for the catalog of the current show, Suzette Lane McAvoy tells us exactly how Ms. Dodd went about it.

“In a departure from her usual plein

air working method,” writes Ms. McAvoy, “Dodd created

this series of work in the studio, based on a large group of drawings produced

over the course of ten years. Nearly weekly, depending on the weather, Dodd has

joined a small group of fellow artists in Tenants Harbor,

Maine, to draw out-of-doors directly from

the model. The single model (she is the same woman throughout the series; Dodd

compiled several separate drawings to create the multiple figure

groupings)-posed nude in various attitudes of work and rest within a domestic

landscape setting.” Landscape, as Ms. McAvoy also

observes, now “plays second string to the figure.”

To the task of reinventing the female nude, both singly and

in groups, Ms. Dodd brings a virtuosic talent for drawing with a loaded

brush-for rendering both her figures and the outdoor spaces they occupy as

improvised structures of color and light. From one picture to another, whether

in motion or at rest, the figures remain anonymous, devoid of personality; they

remain pure painterly inventions. This is figurative painting without narrative

or anecdote-unless, that is, you are aware of the implied narrative to be

discerned in the artist’s relation to the masters of the medium whose work has

shaped her own. But to this European tradition she brings a distinctly American

accent, a plain-spoken delight in the medium itself that is accompanied by a

keen sense of humor and an insouciant sense of proportion. The result is an

unalloyed pleasure for the viewer-you can see it in the faces of the people who

visit this exhibition-and a triumph for the artist.

Women at Work: Recent

Paintings remains on view at the Caldbeck

Gallery, 12 Elm Street, Rockland,

Me., across the street from the Farnsworth

Art Museum, through Aug. 18.