It is rare to encounter contemporary American paintings and drawings governed by a religious perspective, and rarer still for a contemporary artist to speak of “the divine” as a subject of new works of art. For most of us, anyway, serious religious painting is an aesthetic enterprise we associate with the distant past, if only because the rare examples of contemporary religious art we’re likely to have seen are hardly worth remembering: More often than not, they contribute nothing very persuasive to our interest in religion—if we have any—and in regard to our interest in art, they’re more than likely to cause offense.
To all of this, however, the paintings and drawings of the American artist Dozier Bell, on exhibition at the DFN Gallery in Tribeca, are a brilliant exception. I’m not at all certain that I’m able to describe Ms. Bell’s religious views with any sort of accuracy, but that hardly matters. As a painter of landscapes and skies who usually works in acrylic on linen, and as a draftsman working in charcoal on acetate, she’s in such total command of her mediums that she engages our interest and wins our confidence well before we attempt to identify the sometimes hermetic character of her imagery.
What’s also instantly apparent is that Ms. Bell’s pictorial depiction of both earth and the heavens is at once very dark (in every sense), highly mystical and deeply moving. If we also discern in her work a debt to the German master Caspar David Friedrich, this adds another layer of interest to this riveting exhibition. And, as a further interest, Ms. Bell’s work in this show turns out to be a very specific response to a tragedy of modern history—the physical devastation of Germany as a consequence of its central role in the two World Wars. Indeed, the drawings and some of the paintings are based on photographs of Germany dating from 1917 and 1945.
Ms. Bell’s German connection, as it may be called, derives from her experiences as a Fulbright Fellow in Weimar in 1995. To this she brings a perspective that’s neither political nor reportorial but something more akin to spiritual meditation. Thus, in the nocturnal, starlit skies in her paintings, there’s at once an extraordinary visual beauty and a grim reminder that in modern warfare, it’s from the heavens that a merciless destruction rains down. The crosses that dot the skies in some of the nocturnal paintings reinforce this double meaning: While they obviously serve as a Christian symbol of the divine, they also refer to the crosshairs of a murderous technology.
In pondering the complexities of this subject from a religious perspective, Ms. Bell has come to focus on a 12th-century German concept called Heimsuchung. Like much else in German metaphysical thought, this is a concept that harbors multiple meanings. We are thus informed that Heimsuchung “originally meant visitation by God and God’s omniscient presence, but gradually gave way to its use as a term for the singling out of a person or people for visitation by disasters such as plague, famine and war. The term still encompasses these two extremes of human experience: everyday union with the divine, and the devastation and annihilation of the physical self and/or its environment.”
Lest all this may sound like an unduly heavy burden for modern pictorial art to bear, it must also be said that Ms. Bell handles both its moral gravity and its visual challenges with an unfailing command of style. Hers is an art devoid of excessive rhetorical flourishes. If we’re reminded at times not only of Friedrich’s forays into the art of the Sublime, but of the similarly ambitious efforts in that direction by the English painter J.M.W. Turner, Ms. Bell’s landscapes nevertheless remain vividly earthbound, and her starlit skies have a visual poetry that’s all her own. I’ll leave it to others to assess the religious implications of her art. What remains obvious to us nonbelievers, however, is that as a subject for an art of high ambition, what Ms. Bell has described as her “personal iconography of faith” has served her extremely well.
Dozier Bell: New Paintings and Drawings remains on view at the DFN gallery, 176 Franklin Street in Tribeca, through Oct. 9.