PRINT Summer 1992

Moira Dryer's Dream Catchers

For Native American tribes of the Southwest, dreams are the guardians of the soul; a region where the pathologies of the spirit, rather than those of the body or of the world, are enacted.

In the Southwest, particularly in places near Indian reservations, you can buy Indian artifacts from vendors on any street corner. One such object is called a dream-catcher. Made of wood and animal gut, the dream-catcher is shaped like a spider’s web and is to be hung above you when you sleep, or set at the door to your home. The Indians believe that when you dream at night (or just daydream, for that matter), your dreams climb up into the dream-catcher. The catcher’s task is to trap the energy of bad dreams and to release the good spirits from good dreams and return them to the sleeping soul.

To sleep is to blot out the physical world, and to submit to one’s demons and one’s psychic wounds. In dreams, we can explore the elusive mysteries and impenetrable darknesses that the visible realm forces us to ignore; explore the world of pure energy, pure image. If, as James Hillman has suggested, dreams function like an elevator between the conscious world and the psychic underworld we travel to at night, we should always be prepared to push the “down” button. Down into dreams, into sleep, into night.

Moira Dryer’s most recent body of paintings put me in mind of the dream-catcher. It’s difficult to find a place for these works, even within the history of the American Modernist abstraction with which they are at least apparently aligned: laden as they are with irony, and evocative of a conscious fin-de-siècle sense of resignation, a sense that the conventions of abstraction are exhausted, they are certainly remote from the recent wave of abstract revivalism. Yet for Dryer, all art history is manifest in her vertical stripes, bars, drips, and skeins of paint. And its presence there leads to an open kind of associativeness:

When I observe my own work, both while making it and afterwards, it is teeming with imagery. I cannot find “unrecognizable” imagery in these paintings. The various styles in painting have been digested into the language and have become familiar. The minute the brush hits there is a fertile association to be made to other paintings elsewhere. It is the re-assimilation and reorganizing of how we perceive the imagery that is the new frontier; where the excitement lies. The animal of painting is the sense of a long and complex language. The style is the material I paint with.1

Though Dryer uses the vocabulary of abstraction, then—dots, splashes, loose stripes—it’s hard to see the paintings as anything but images, images of raw states of emotion. Blots of emotion, splatters of feeling: red is blood and hate, and blue is poison. Dryer is as unafraid of the esthetic sin of obviousness as of the oblivion in her gestures. All are made to seem hollow, floating on the surface of descent, or hovering like a revelation or a hallucination—as if caught in the moment of fall.

Indeed, the overall spatial sensation of Dryer’s new paintings is one of falling. They capture that moment of dissolve from waking consciousness as it slides into the nether lands of the dreamworld. Against a relentless background of verticality, the dots and splatters seem caught in the momentary configurations of descent. This Chekhovian emotional key seems quite alien to the masculinist assumptions of classic abstract art.

Sometimes these paintings are like violent dissonances between the body and the world: between bodily presence, painterly gesture, and the incessant drift of vertical, falling paint. But one work, Deep Sleep, 1991, is unique in offering a moment of stillness, even repose. There is a heavy, hard physicality to all the new paintings, in part because they are executed on large panels of thick wood. But in Deep Sleep, the blue-gray curtain of paint is more diaphanous than elsewhere, suggesting an ephemeral quality in contrast to the work’s weight and mass as an object. The vertically striated ground looks softer, and feels less like a dense cascade, than in the other paintings. It suggests a veil—another intimation of the deep. Deep Sleep confronts you with the threshold of what Maurice Blanchot calls the “other” night: “There is always a moment when, in the night, the beast hears the other beast. This is the other night. And this is in no way terrifying; it says nothing extraordinary, it has nothing in common with ghosts and trances. It is only muffled whispering, a noise one can hardly distinguish from silence, the seeping sands of silence.”2

As when you stare into darkness, nearness and distance become confused for the viewer of Deep Sleep. It conjures up a sense of night, and of the unblinkered gaze that silently attempts to penetrate night’s lightless veil for the smallest visual cue. Such a gaze can trigger hallucination. There is no seduction in this darkness, this depth, this sleep. We are made all too aware that night is the boundary of fear. And the depth does not invite: it compels. We are compelled to press Hillman’s down button, to risk the confrontation, without running away. After all, those are our dreams, our ghosts, our demons, our deep, our darkness; to run from them is to run from ourselves. Deep Sleep is like a timely reminder of what Rainer Maria Rilke knew: that he didn’t want to lose his demons, because then he might lose his angels as well.

This painting embodies the space of the threshold-—a space between spaces, between the body and the world, between night and day. It reminds us that night contains more than that romantic idea of the released “other world” of the imagination. When night falls, imagination may well be freed from the pathologies of the daily world. But it is released into the pathologies of the spirit.

In Deep Sleep, to see is always to see through. We are compelled to look through the blobs and stains (the mediation of the body) as well as through the veil (the mediation of appearance). The painting makes this compulsion into a convulsion—a tear, a wound in the curtain of seeing. It doesn’t offer the resolution of pleasure in paint that is the shallow reward of so much abstract art. Instead, it holds us in a limbo of illusionistic depth between spheres of opacity. Somehow, surface and depth are equally withheld.

A veil of stainlike dots occurs in two other paintings, both in blood red, of the same year. In Revenge, the dots seem to refer directly to wounds and bloody splatters; in More Random Fire, to more abstract pathologies of the body. But if the inner and outer wounds in these two paintings seem to outline a pattern of chance, in Deep Sleep they seem on the threshold of configuration. It’s as if they were about to yield a recognizable image; a revelation.

Black against the field of blue gray, the veil of dots in Deep Sleep seems almost at the point of conjunction with its ground. Like an irregular polka-dot curtain, foreground and background, body and world, have found a hesitant moment of repose, as the body does in sleep. “The bad sleeper,” Blanchot says, “tosses and turns in search of that genuine place which he knows is unique. He knows that only in that spot will the world give up its errant immensity.”3 Deep Sleep has found its unique and genuine place in the world. It has found its threshold onto the “other”: the secret key, the right configuration of repose. Untroubled by dreams and false energies, Deep Sleep is somehow pure energy, pure image, pure dream; “a dream of the night, a dream where the form of the dream becomes its sole content.”4

Rosetta Brooks is a writer who lives in California and New York.


1. Moira Dryer, “An Emotive Identity,” Tema Celeste nos. 32–33, Autumn 1991, p. 82.

2. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p. 168.

3. Ibid., p. 265.

4. Ibid., p. 267.