New York

Toni Dove

Terry Dintenfass Gallery

The first painting one comes to in Toni Dove’s recent exhibition is of two fish (trout, I think), placed one directly above the other in the center of a field of pastel blue. The top fish is realistically, even clinically, rendered; the bottom fish, identical in outline, is done in silver leaf. I use the word “field” to describe the background because it is not watery but a dry, brushy blue. The painting is called Equals. The top fish (not a fish, we are given to think, but Fish) is not superior to the mere silhouette. The title gave me pause, for the presentation of two such similar images instigates comparison, and my natural sentiments lay with the “real” fish. But is it any more real, Dove seems to want us to ask ourselves, this two-dimensional image made not of fish oils but oil paints? In form, the fish are equal.

This first painting ushers in nicely the complexities of the rest of the work. The paintings are thought-demanding. They all superimpose images from nature—birds, fish, seashells, flowers—on abstract or diagrammatic backgrounds. They all concern and question form (What is a fish?), and they all ask their questions dialectically, presenting with each possibility a sort of metaphysical opposite.

Orientation: The Ceiling, like the other two in the series, Orientation: The Wall and Orientation: The Floor, is divided bilaterally. In the left half of Ceiling a strep-throated orchid stares out from a black void. In the right half the identical (again rather clinical) orchid is placed against a dark-blue blend of star chart and oceanographic sections. In Wall a pair of fish (now speckled trout) lying in a black void are juxtaposed to the same two fish lying on an opulent gilt and red flower wallpaper. Floor gives us a conch against utter darkness and then the same conch on a sort of topographical map, pelted by comicbook slants of silver rain or seaspray and kept company by a starfish and a sand dollar. The natural elements floating in their voids conjure up Plato’s theory of forms: an ideal orchid (or fish, or conch), an absolute on which all others are patterned. On the other hand we have the same form made relative to a system, worldly or cosmic. Or if you like, we have a Kierkegaardian dialectic: the absolute versus the universal. The point is, the work asks for interpretation.

The largest and most ambitious painting, Border and Bridge, is a veritable chart of being and becoming. A primitive-looking mold of a scallop shell in a void girt by a “phases of the moon” chart; starry quadrants of the cosmos supporting three silver slivers and three oceanographic sections; a final area of watery blue with a “normal” scallop, fluted and color-blotched, seemingly just emerged from a broken apart silver silhouette of a shell, itself a sort of halfway house between the primitive-looking mold and the final product. More Plato, an ideal form hatching the real? But there are physical, as well as metaphysical, forces of creation at work: moons, tides, seashells that thrive in tidal waters.

Unfortunately, the symbolically more complex works come off more as interesting puzzles than beautiful paintings. I thought of Tolstoy: “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity.” The two simplest—Equals, with its double fish, and Orientation: The Wall, with its pleasingly startling fish on wallpaper—manage to be lovely without sacrificing anything in suggestivity.

Tor Seidler