Los Angeles

Laddie John Dill

California Institute of Technology

My favorite works by Laddie John Dill were made around 1972–73: long, narrow cast wedges of cement in which are inserted troughs of glass holding cement wedges that slope in the opposite direction. The cement members blend into each other at the ends. The unit, which looks as if it weighs at least a ton, rests on the floor. Works of an airless but conceptually tough elegance, the wedge pieces balance brute physicality and precise cerebral ambiguity. For instance, does the bottom wedge contain the glass which contains the top wedge, or is the glass contained, sandwich-fashion, by the cement?—in a way that, as Michael H. Smith (curator of Dill’s Cal Tech retrospective) notes, distantly recalls Duchamp’s famous two-way door. The symmetry of the idea, no less than of the nested, interlocking forms, fascinates and satisfies. Unfortunately, these authoritative sculptures are the exception in a still-brief career otherwise devoted to images of an elaborate, bleak finesse.

The earliest work at Cal Tech was from 1971, a reconstructed pile of fine sand about 20 feet long, its surface teased into delicate ridges and declivities suggestive of a miniature windblown Sahara, from which protruded six 8-foot-high sheets of plate glass in marching order and six smaller sheets at a right angle to and between the larger. The room was semi-dark, and the top edges of the smaller sheets glowed laser-green from a light source buried in the sand. Reciprocal reflections of the green “line” made for pleasing illusions of recessive space, and the overall effect was suavely spooky. But the air of arbitrary contrivance was finally suffocating. A lot of people around 1970 were making multi-medium-plus-light environmental sculpture, but I can’t think of another such work that seemed at once so portentous and so little about anything, so little inflected with psychological or conceptual tension. And the same goes for Dill’s early-’70s light-tube works, which get practically all their putative magic from science-y ingredient lists, e.g. argon and uranium.

Dill’s work of the past five years has been in matière painting: alluvial slabs of encrusted cement and polymer with mineral pigmentation, sometimes “lyrically” brushed, sometimes inlaid with broken sheets of plate glass (giving diver’s-mask views of underlying layers), sometimes built up with jutting relief organized around a door motif. These last, pitting heavy materiality against pictorial illusion, are pretty good. But Dill’s most recent work, which keeps the door image but dispenses with relief, collapses the tension in illusion’s favor: however abstracted and despite a lot of surface lava, these read as pictures. And in even the best of Dill’s painting the hard-to-do strenuousness of material and execution seems out of line with the rather exquisite effects it yields.

In general, Dill’s work seems to suffer—as does a lot of respectable art these days—from a glut of intentions, as if it couldn’t bear to be taken for one thing or another when it might be taken for both. Thus material presence, composed image and surface gesture are all pumped up to a maximum degree, as if intensity could substitute for a mediating idea or core of feeling. What results is a synthesis devoid of any but a kind of academic significance. It hardly matters that work is done well when it fails to answer the question of why anybody should have wanted to do it at all.

Peter Schjeldahl