Take, for instance the tall, skinny "Woods, 1975" — 14 feet tall by three wide. The white house and yard in the bottom third are framed by tall thin spruce trunks that occupy the whole of the painting, and most of its area is filled by the trees' crisscrossing horizontal branching. There is only one reason for such an unlikely framing arrangement: Dodd spotted it, liked it, and worked up the shape and size because she thought it would be interesting. It is.
Dodd's color range can be complex and broad, but one particular painting, "Red Gladioli, 2005," stands as an outer boundary of how she works with color. The background is in mostly greens, representing the foliage and stems of the plants. The blossoms, which course up through the painting moving slightly to the left, are brightly and unquestionably red, complementary in a way that makes the image visually unstable. It's pretty big, four feet high by two wide, and cropped to provide little detail about the subject. This one vibrates and grabs you from a distance — a trick of the color, so to speak.
Dodd's color is strong and coherent, and the effect of this whole group together has a kind of luminosity that suggests the shows title actually makes sense, an exhibitional rarity. She doesn't choose a subject because it's inherently interesting or luminous; she picks it because she can make what she sees into a compelling painting, and that makes the subject interesting. It's light created, more than light depicted.
It's a subtle but important distinction. The regular geometries of "Door, Staircase, 1981" and the color fields of "Burning House, Night, Vertical, 2007" and the implied domes of "Cow Parsnip, 1996" are worth looking at because of what she has made of them. She discovers, or uncovers, the poetic resonance of her subject. We know it exists because she can see it and has the skills to make it available to others. We like these paintings because of what they are, rather than for what they show us.
The ideas are in the things, and they are good ideas. Picture after picture, Dodd's penetrating pictorial intelligence shows through. They are thought out as pictures in the moment of their execution, not as demonstrations of a pre-conceived thesis. The kinds of things she thinks about could only be done as what they are. The modernist reality of the awareness of the artificiality of any work of art coupled with the emotional and subjective awareness of place and circumstance result in a deep philosophical verity. These paintings are very real and very personal.
The modernist idea was born in Europe but grew up in the US. Dodd's paintings, in that sense, are very American. Now in her mid-80s, Dodd has quietly worked her way through a long and productive career without the fanfare and argument that have been characteristic of many of her peers. She is still at the top of her game, and this exhibition shows she has been there for many years.
"LOIS DODD: CATCHING THE LIGHT" | at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq, Portland | through April 7 | portlandmuseum.org