Dorothy’s People

By Leo Braudy

Being privileged to be able to observe closely for almost thirty years the evolution of Dorothy’s work, I can see certain clear constants. Her prime interest is usually representational. No matter how much the image itself might involve a fluidity of form and an abstraction of color, there is a basic urge to create recognizable images of human behavior and activity. Yet an essential part of that creation- and an important element in the homage she pays to the Impressionists and postImpressionists- is the interplay between these images and the surface of the painting, the colors and canvas that allow the image to come into being. Thus she has chosen to knit together and resolve for herself the aesthetic and moral contradictions that the Abstract Expressionists had postulated between the surface of the painting and the illusion of representation.
 
Rather than an art that refers to itself and sees its evolution in terms of its internal workings, or an art that attempts to “present” and thereby “represent” the visible world, Dorothy’s paintings focus on perception- the interaction between what we see and how we try to make order from them- as both social meaning and visual configuration. At the center of her work is a continuing desire to recognize without judging, and even to celebrate the connection between a visible world of familiar life and an invisible world of spirit and feeling that she believes can be conveyed in painting, not by suppressing representation but by enhancing it. When she left pure abstraction behind many years ago, color surged in. And it is through color that she principally conveys the often enigmatic but always powerful emotional shadings of her scenes. Unlike the abstractionist effort to assert timelessness by eliminating forms with any analogies to normal life, she peers into normal life and chooses images that crystallize, not into stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but into moments of intensification, when normal gestures glow with the attention we have paid them.
 
In these worlds of color and light, there is a palpably heightened but still familiar reality, revealing the mysteries of the day: each time with its light, each light with its time. In our normal lives, we sleepwalk through time, until, as here, the moment is abruptly revealed in all its memory and we see the jagged strangeness of the ordinary- disconcerting, dizzying, but somehow welcoming. In that moment the limits of individual perception vanish and all things are potential and possible. As in an earthquake, people, things, even the very air becomes more clearcut, brilliant, shifting, and reforming- cracking into their components, as colors wash over them and burst from within. Then the moment closes around them, and safety and familiarity seem to return.
 
The light in Dorothy’s paintings therefore does not resemble the Impressionist light that plays over objects, changing their outlines and proportions in our perception, so much as it emerges¬†from the characters, as a barometer of their inner weather, the trickling out of those swells and storms, as well as the way they incorporate that weather in their faces and thereby to the world, whether they choose or not. A mother teaching a child to swim, two people eating lunch under an outdoor patio canopy, a preoccupied reader with his head ducked into a book- in each of these the moment is compounded of its specific light that washes over it and the colors that are released (rather than found) by that light.
 
Dorothy’s paintings thus take as their subject the actual strangeness of reality and perception. Exploring the ambiguities of how we represent ourselves to ourselves and to each other, conveying a sense of bodies disintegrated and synthesized by the color and light surrounding them, they question our precious sense of ourselves as “whole” subjects to display instead the intensity with which we can change from moment to moment.
 
In her watercolors and her gum bichromate photographs, she takes up another aspect of this theme, and, because they can be lighter and more airy than the oils, they play their colors even more definitely against the whiteness of an absent shape. Oddly, whatever their subject matter, they usually seem ancient, pushed back into the past, nostalgic, while the paintings, again despite the nominal date of their source, are immediate, powerful monumentalizing of otherwise transient human moments of reality.
 
The interplay of time has been pressed even further in the bas-reliefs, where the absence of color further takes the images- derived from that most immediate of contexts, the newspaper photograph- into a timeless world of archetypal gesture and feeling. The analogy is to the classical past and its patterns of sculptural movement. But the effect instead of once again (as in the paintings and watercolors) appears to come from the figures instead of being imposed by either artist or form.
 
The artist conveyed by Dorothy’s paintings is not a genius who has a special vision to which we mere viewers must be subordinated, but the artist as an especially sensitive “one of us” whose vision increases and expands our own. In her paintings the eye of the painter and the eye of the audience become one, giving human sense and artistic order to a scene that is otherwise part of the flux and flow of life, without any necessary shape of its own. Working from photographs the way earlier painters worked from sketches, she finds her subjects themselves in a mood of being watched, caught by the camera in a way that it seems they want to be caught, posing rather than taken unawares. Yet in that posing is a choice that itself reveals, a choice of how to be seen and how to be represented. Once we have seen what her art shows, our own perception of the world is never the same. She is the midwife of art in her world: the business of a moment’s gesture, a leisurely pause, a bright glance at the person who has decided to look at you for just this moment, which turns out to be eternity.