Dee Wolff

Dee Wolff’s “Stations of the Cross” series, 1973–88, expands the theme of the Passion of Christ beyond its orthodox confines and adds to it the Resurrection. Over the last 14 years Wolff has made a persistent and disciplined struggle against conformity and rigidity; her work moves toward a universal and ecumenical end. This series of works is about spiritual growth transcending both the Church and the ego, and it is based on a scheme that preserves the inspiration of the first and a scenario for the second.

Working intuitively, Wolff began with small, simple, semiabstract drawings that spontaneously provided links in her narrative. Firmly shaped, brightly colored, and childlike, the drawings were labeled and ordered only after she saw qualities in each that accorded with her symbolic imperatives. An important transformation occurred when Wolff began painting the paper she worked on black. Her handling grew loose and gestural, resulting in rib-bonny blue skies, scumbled green ground, and the recurrence of a luminous Latin Cross within molten orange borders. With each new series, a more vivid cast of signs begins to appear: hilly contours, meandering paths, a humanoid shadow form, X-signs, thorny lines, fluttering wings, astral dots, and blossoming flowers. Their notational dispersion recalls the expressive vocabulary found in Wassily Kandinsky’s studies based on the Book of Revelations, but Wolff’s tiny graphic deliberations are clustered into nodes, like harbors of ideograms. In Station XII: The Crucifixion, 1987, blue skies and red flames are rendered with a crackling energy that conveys a profound sense of awe. But the Cross is really a void framed by a jagged-edged sky, its shape proliferating with miniature martyrs, like an army of souls lifted upward by fire.

The most recent works, done in 1988, are large black-and-white pen drawings, filled border to border with palisades of trees, enfilades of crosses, ditches of skulls, skies infilled with wings, and armies of skeletons. They recall the Northern Renaissance paintings of hordes locked in battle and combats between the forces of good and evil. Rendered meticulously, they appear to be miracles of cogitated composition. But they’re not preconceived: rather, they seem to have grown bit by bit as the pen was moved through the field of paper. In Station XV: The Resurrection, 1988, the entire surface is dusted with short ink strokes like lead shavings, which seem drawn magnetically around large doves, the whiteness of the paper forming a substantive radiance. Even when Wolff seems to be contending with devils, there is a sweetness and serenity in her work that seems at odds with the anguished content of the Passion. The “Selah 5” series, 1983–87, looks as if it could be bound as a precious book; it is even inscribed with gilded Gothic lettering.

The cumulative effect of these modest works is almost pacifying, as if one were standing in a chapel illuminated through stained glass windows. They are both meditative and mystical, and they promote a spiritual reflectiveness with which to reencounter the world. Their formal and thematic radiance was enhanced at this gallery by the simultaneous installation of an exhibition of photographs depicting mothers of the disappeared in El Salvador—a blunt encounter with the political martyrdoms that occur on our own borders.

Joan Seeman Robinson