Lois Dodd, “The Painted Room,” 1982, oil and canvas. Collection of the Farnsworth Museum, Gift of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York.
Lois Dodd, “The Painted Room,” 1982, oil and canvas. Collection of the Farnsworth Museum, Gift of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York.
Lois Dodd (b. 1927) is among Maine's most celebrated artists; her paintings were featured in a 2012 retrospective exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art, and this summer Colby College is presenting an exhibition of her less well known but surprisingly bold, deceptively simple works on paper (June 7 through August 31), where she is being honored at the college's summer luncheon, long the state of Maine's most prestigious celebration for and about artists.



Among many other American museums, the Farnsworth Museum has been fortunate to acquire major examples by the artist; "The Painted Room," from 1982, is one of several "window" and "mirror" paintings that are among Dodd's modernist meditations on the unsettled interplay between artifice and reality in art, the singular subject of most advanced art since the advent of Impressionism in the mid-19th century. Unsettled, because there is no clear resolution as to how we perceive such a painting where interior and exterior seem interchangeable - precisely the frisson of engaging the real world and the world of aesthetic truth that Dodd strives for.



The format could not be more basic or seemingly straightforward; a rectangular, partially raised and mullioned window set squarely in a wall. Only a thin slice of ceiling at the top framing edge provides a hint that the view is from within the room looking out through a window, nearly but not quite perfectly centered within the rectangular framing edges. Ironically, this abstract, trapezoidal, shard-like shape reveals the presence of a third dimension, the only hint of spatial depth, along with the naked lightbulb protruding into the otherwise dense forest scene. Her painting is not so much a window on the world, as has been the role of art from the Renaissance through much of the 19th century, but about the equivocal status of a window - or any recognizable image - in a painted world.



Dodd stands in a long line of painters who have used windows to comment on the nature of painting as an act of imagination rather than mere representation. But while Dodd's "quarry" paintings, another subject she has painted over many years, have been described by art historian Alison Ferris as being in conversation with Cezanne, her window paintings are metaphorically "open" to a wide range of formal influences and interpretive possibilities.



Like precursors including Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and John Marin, her method is very direct, with a sureness of touch that only comes with decades of knowing when and where to place a mark and when and where to leave an already existing brushstroke alone. It is this immediacy and confidence that boggles the minds of her fellow painters. And make no mistake; Dodd is above all a painter's painter. Acutely aware of the transience of daily life - gardens and even the view out her windows - Dodd's brush moves quickly, chasing the light and its tousling effect on color, not to capture an "impression" but rather to fix the tentativeness of her subjects, which exist as passing moments in memory and the artist's desire to retrieve them for herself and, perhaps, a few others who might care.



The bare lightbulb anchors "The Painted Room." Switched off, it does not fully illuminate the painted room. Trees, foliage and even the relatively bright bottom half of the painting with swaths of orange-pink and deeper, earthen-reds seem muted compared to the bright-yellow curtains and landscape through the window. Natural light always trumps artificial light for painters like Dodd, attuned to the vast differences between the two. So, even though the 21st century impinges, albeit modestly, nearly imperceptibly, in Dodd's Maine world of gardens and forests and antique barns and houses, it must be acknowledged because it is vehemently there in the form of a bare lightbulb. Like her figurative paintings of nudes, the bulb is naked, unadorned by a shade and, in its own way, "natural" and essential to the act of perceiving the world as it appears. Reversing the usual planes of background and foreground, the dimly lit "painted room" recedes while the brighter exterior through the window advances along with the yellow curtains that seem to contain their own light source, glowing softly from within.



Dodd appears to be playing with basic tenets of visual perception that she would have learned at Cooper Union during her student days there during the late 1940s, a moment of explosive, radical change in art with the advent of Abstract Expressionism. The "rules" were all being broken then, but Dodd found herself not so much breaking the rules as ignoring those who did and making up her own, much as she has done since emerging as one of the founders of the first artists' cooperative gallery in New York during the late 1950s, the Tanager Gallery, legendary for launching the careers of Lois's peers - Alex Katz, William King, Tom Wesselman, Philip Pealstein and others. By then Pollock, Still, de Kooning, Kline, Rothko and Newman had taken on the American sublime-transcendental aspirations for painting as well as fraught intimations of Jungian archetypes and Freudian subconscious. Dodd would have none of it. She is nothing if not independent and early on decided that painting, at least for her, needed to start with what the artist sees, whether in her neighbor and noted food writer Leslie Land's garden in Maine or the rooftops of lower Manhattan, both locales where Dodd has lived and worked for over a half-century.



Dodd's independent streak includes, as others have noted, a wry, gentle sense of humor. And the sophistication of her work allows for a bit of playfulness. The inside/outside echo chamber of "The Painted Room" is ultimately thwarted by the lightbulb, the small but critical detail that pulls the painting back from taking itself too seriously. Even so, the window and exterior scene seem to be floating free, suspended in time and space within a kind of numinous light and disorienting dislocation one associates with dreams and dreaming.



But, then, how lovely to awake from such a dream on a bright summer morning in a guest bedroom at Lois's home in Maine - and find yourself inhabiting one of the artist's most engaging paintings, where the dream is, in fact, reality after all?