Exiting Karma in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the street is transformed into one of the noir dreamscapes of Jane Dickson’s paintings. It’s fitting, as the gallery is showing her latest collection, “The Promised Land,” a cerebral ode to the city and an equally personal depiction of the inner workings of her psyche. Dickson’s paintings have hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney but are also literally embedded into the character of New York itself.
Her work, The Revelers, lines the iconic 42nd Street subway station. Her mosaic depiction of isolated images of the diverse characters of the city evokes the most authentic sense of what it means to be a New Yorker.
Her art poses questions, and we are prompted to nestle ourselves on one side of a social or intellectual dichotomy. Dickson’s early work challenged notions of traditional feminism and class structure. Now 71 years old and working and living in Bushwick, she interrogates tensions between beauty and age, as well as between New York City’s simultaneous reputation as a beacon of social progress and a harbinger of capitalism.
In her studio and home, she played Burna Boy and made coffee while tidying up sketches in preparation for the reveal of the neon portraiture she plans to unveil in a coming show. On the walls are canvases in deep blues, blacks and oranges and a massive supply of multicolored felt—an essential component of her textured, gritty paintings.
Dickson’s work is a form of determinate abstraction—she entertains mixed emotions. “I use my painting to clarify my situations,” she told Observer, “I’m drawn to things that frighten me or disturb me because those are the things I need to deal with.”
When Dickson moved to New York in 1978, she recalled a charmed moment in American history. As she tells it, she arrived into a Hopper-esque vision of the city and felt a strong urge to record her time. Part of exhibitions alongside artists like Keith Haring, Jean–Michel Basquiat and Diego Cortez, she became an early member of a collective now known as “Colab.”
Young and aching to create, Dickson and her contemporaries were eager to showcase their conceptual and minimal art despite it not yet catching the eye of curators. “The idea was artists should band together, share resources and make our own opportunities,” she said.
She and her husband, Charlie Ahearn, a filmmaker, had a perfect view of Times Square from their first apartment, and Dickson would trace the city’s metamorphosis come nightfall. When Dickson found a more permanent residence in Bushwick, she began incorporating scenes of Williamsburg and Bushwick into her work. One of the paintings in the “Promised Land” collection is a zoomed-in image of signage that reads ‘Bargain.’ Dickson is quick to spot the relics left behind by predatory architectural developments that displaced ethnic communities in the outer boroughs.
While her values are in no way absent from her art, Dickson’s work is never explicitly political. She has a reputation for documenting underprivileged populations and parts of town but does not attempt to call herself an activist for lower-income communities. As art critic Yasmin Ramirez explained during an artistic interrogation hosted at the Karma Gallery alongside the artist KAWS and writer Linda Yablonski, Dickson isn’t trying to be PC to establish herself as a moral guide in a modern era: “She was painting what she thought was beautiful and interesting, and that was us.”
In the early 1980s, when Dickson first got her footing, 42nd Street was home to an unseen underbelly of city life with peep shows, prostitution and heavy crime. Yet among the debauchery, Dickson felt there was an essential human beauty that required her attention. “I have a soft spot for the soon-to-be-obsolete,” she explained.
While Dickson is deeply concerned with recording the perceptible presence of a rapidly changing topography, Yablonski describes her work as both “history paintings” and “living paintings.” This is evidenced by her earlier work that depicted peep shows and nudes of sex workers.
During “those feminist hippy days,” Dickson explained, it was frowned upon for women to flaunt their sexuality. Dickson even received criticism from other artists concerned she was painting sexual images while her children were growing up in the same house. “They’re nudes, not degradation,” she said.
However, she captures a dualism that has endured into the present wave of feminism, solidifying the enduring relevance of her earlier work. Dickson used to draw scenes from the circus and says she was fascinated by the elephants forced to balance on tiny platforms. “I thought, yes, I know what it’s like to be told here, go stand in your tiny space,” she said.
In her days as a professor of art at Pace University, she was asked to keep quiet about the success of her work outside the classroom by the chair of her department to “not make the rest of them look bad.”
“I always felt like people wanted me to shrink down under a cabinet, because if you stand up to your full size, ‘we look short,’” she recalled. In her work capturing streetwalkers, she wrestled with these mixed emotions and how women manage to feel simultaneously beautiful and empowered when they are aggressively sexualized.
“As a woman, it’s like you want to turn heads, but not too much,” she said. “You don’t want to be ignored, but you want to be invisible when you feel like it.” At the root of this work is a universal struggle with perception and beauty that captures an abiding sense of human pathos that expands the confines of the time.
Karma’s “Promise Land” illustrates how Dickson’s observational eye has changed with time and wisdom. When she was younger, Dickson said, she would notice “lonely single people.” Come middle age, she would see families with children. Now? “I notice old people; I never noticed them before,” she said.
Her paintings begin as photos—she sees a compelling image, and she captures it on her camera; then, in smaller sketches, the images are turned into a series of studies using oil paints on unorthodox fabrics until she is satisfied with her final creation. However, she does not return to the original photo after one re-creation. In this way, she cultivates her work’s transcendence and infuses the image with her own projections.
In Universal Unisex, she paints a beauty salon on a black canvas lit with an orange glow from within. The image has one subject: a woman whose age Dickson says she can’t remember from the original photo. As the painting took form, she became an older woman with a white dog as a companion. This is the projection, she explained. “It’s about old age, in a way. But it is also about beauty—the aspiration for beauty.”
The painting also captures the changing social landscapes. The salon’s name, Universal Unisex, recalled for her the fight for transgender rights and gay marriage—a prominent theme of the time and the promise of inclusion that the city holds.
In her life, Dickson says the “Promised Land” has kept its promise. She is experiencing a pivotal moment in her career and is preparing for more gallery shows in London and New York this year. Nonetheless, some of the paintings hanging on the walls of Karma evoke a somewhat disquieting sensation.
The titular piece, Promised Land, depicts a man wearing a sign that says Dreams and Adult Bar No Cover. It is a simultaneous study of the counterculture she is known to capture and also a message tempting the viewer to follow their dreams into a murky unknown. Dickson has become familiar with the realities of an uncertain future, “I have had to examine my morality before,” she explained. Having lived through cancer and an ectopic pregnancy, she was “feeling pretty cocky” about her ability to overcome illness. But during the pandemic, she began to feel an insidious form of exhaustion.
When she painted Save Time—a neon oil painting of a sign she first noticed in the window of a 24-hour laundromat—she didn’t yet understand why that almost imperious proclamation occupied her mind. “When I was young, I never would have noticed a sign that says ‘save time,’ now all of a sudden it’s compelling,” she said.
Dickson would later find out her general feeling of malaise was the first sign of her coming battle with breast cancer—her second bout with cancer—which would take over the next years of her life. Her official diagnosis came in 2022, and she said she felt “dumbfounded.”
“I’m sort of at the end, hopefully, of a three-year, pedal-to-the-metal, non-stop, all-time slog,” she said. She wears a wrist brace and experiences pain in her left arm caused by radiation treatments and surgery and is now in physical therapy. “At this point, I feel like I’ve absorbed it,” she said. In her new work, Dickson says she is “interested in hope, and often sort of hope against all odds.”
The real Promised Land, she revealed, is in Williamsburg—a photo she snapped from her car window while speeding by the sign. Dickson hasn’t been able to find it again since. But that’s okay; she’s still learning not only to save time but also to cherish it.
“Promised Land” is on view at Karma (188 & 172 East 2nd Street) through October 28.