Los Angeles

Laddie John Dill

James Corcoran Gallery

I suspect that the esthetic emotions elicited by Laddie John Dill’s rugged new abstract paintings have something in common with the feelings aroused in the bosom of the educated 18th-century traveller face to face with a “sublime” natural vista such as a raging storm, a bottomless gorge, or a majestic mountain range. Not that one requires a Longinian taste for the awesome in nature to appreciate Dill’s recent work; it suffices to be sensible to epic aspirations in painting—the scale, for example, of Clyfford Still, or the craggy forms of Motherwell, or the incontinently energetic surfaces of any number of second-generation Abstract Expressionists.

Although Dill’s paintings—perhaps wall sculpture would be a more appropriate label—are not exceptionally large (a few of the nine untitled works exhibited are as small as 32 by 48 inches and the largest are only five by seven feet), they nevertheless manage to seem as awesome as slabs of the continent, as weighty as slices of earth rock hacked away from the core by a fanatic geologist with a penchant for preserving endangered strata. The materials of Dill’s work are in part responsible for the large-scale effects he achieves. Working on plywood supports, his thickly layered cement is applied in uncouth wallops and masked by polymer paint in an earth to rock range of colors. The painted cement is dry and matte, as if desiccated by salt and seared by the desert sun. Pocked, incrusted, spattered with air bubbles, and corrugated by ridges, the surface seems alternately to document the swoop of a reckless house-painter’s brush or the wild ravages of erosive nature. At times Dill falters, and his roughened-up texture is trivial, like stucco; most often, however, it is a bold surface reminding one of the type of terrain Baedeker used to call “trackless wastes.”

Unlike Dill’s earlier cement paintings, these new works have oases. Here and there the arid cement skin is lubricated by a flash of polymer shine where the paint has pooled. But the most dramatic effects are created by the artist’s inclusion of giant fragments of plate glass, skillfully imbedded in the brute cement, as the lyric medium of his latest painting. Gleaming fitfully, sometimes like ice, sometimes like coal, these laminae may occasionally cover more than half the surface of a work and become the site for a stunning range of painterly ploys. Under glass, there is an appealing tendency for Dill’s polymer to flaunt its liquidity, its potential for shimmer, its eagerness to gather in globules. Brilliant rivulets edge somber-colored masses. Jewel lights flicker. Moiré effects are allowed to stand. Yet, elsewhere, a block of glass can be as tough as a vein of tourmaline in a hill of talc or as cool as an icecap on a dank pool. Dill flirts with the danger of preciousness, but almost always is saved from such a diminishment by force of size, restraint in color, and the rough aura of hazard which his material exudes.

It has been pointed out that the current work has perceivable connections with Dill’s earlier sand, glass, and light pieces; yet the differences, it seems to me, are far more striking. The insistent physicality of the recent work is its dominant note. It is possible that the aggressive material presence of these cement and glass paintings has an exaggerated power in Los Angeles—that is, in an artistic milieu where the current obsessions are with ephemeral forms offering little, if any, resistance to gravity; what seems more important to note is the way in which these works demonstrate the uses of tradition and the cheering fact that at any given moment it is perpetually possible (with talent) to exploit a known visual language as if it were new.

Nancy Marmer