New York

Jane Dickson

Brooke Alexander

Jane Dickson’s strongly graphic figurative paintings bear witness to a distinctly urban visual anxiety. Ranging from images of street conflagrations viewed from above, featuring car headlights and policemen casting long shadows, to rough black and white portraits of street people, not to mention more finished compositions of figures isolated in windows, these scenes, even at their friendliest, put you on your guard and make your stomach clench.

Like many artists working in what might broadly be called a social-realist mode, Dickson seems to celebrate her homespun technique. Her sketches of street people seem self-consciously rough and antivirtuosic; their sheer number (they cover an entire wall) seem to dissuade the viewer from examining any one of them for very long. Instead, the grittiness of the drawing process—the awkwardness and exploration they register, the give-and-take between subject and artist—is not just permitted but emphasized. The result is an expressionism populated by bizarre but not terribly animated individuals: people whose “look” may be savage, but whose inner personalities seem retiring, even self-absorbed. The outer roughness and inner sophistication of these paintings echo the sensibilities of the figures that populate them; there’s something awfully human about these paintings, despite their frequently grotesque subjects.

The series entitled “Cops and Headlights,” 1991, has a wonderful immediacy and drama to it, but it’s really the other series—entitled “Witness,” 1991—that is the most chilling. In these voyeuristic paintings, we look at people through their windows, but unlike the similarly viewed subjects in works by Edward Hopper, these figures are hardly sleepwalkers. Instead, Dickson’s subjects stare out at us, backlit in windows, counterbalancing the thrill of our espionage with the shock of their detection; scarier still, we can’t see the expressions on their faces, can’t see their eyes. The ugly fluorescent colors, gritty surface textures, and murky silhouettes all contribute to a visceral sense of foreboding and subdued terror. In the “Witness” series, these quintessentially urban exchanges—the darkened stare of a stranger, the shock of being detected in the act of watching—are perfectly realized: Dickson is a true master of the urban macabre.

Justin Spring