Beacon

Lois Dodd, Forsythia, April, 1976, oil on Masonite, 16 × 17 3/4".

Lois Dodd, Forsythia, April, 1976, oil on Masonite, 16 × 17 3/4".

Lois Dodd and Shara Hughes

Parts & Labor

As anyone who has ever been to a cocktail party knows, sharing an interest with someone does not necessarily mean you’re in for a great conversation. Lois Dodd, who is ninety-three, and Shara Hughes, who is thirty-nine, both paint landscapes. They take markedly different approaches to the genre, however, and, as this two-person show revealed, have little to say to one another about their common ground. The exhibition materials noted that both women create “portals” and that their pictures share “a sense of query about transition and a kind of pause that is alluded to when one space is delineated from another,” but these tenuous mutual traits were lost in the overwhelming dissimilarity of images, leaving the viewer to consider the dissonance rather than the potential synergy between the two painters. The artists themselves may get along wonderfully, of course, but their philosophically divergent works hung in the spatial equivalent of awkward silence.

Dodd, who works from life, created the paintings on view en plein air between 1966 and 1988 in Maine and Vermont. Forest scenes of slanting pines and fallen boughs, mosaicked with strokes of sunlight and sprays of evergreen, offered windows into the long, ruminative hours Dodd spent at work among the trees. One slender, toppled trunk lies across the five-foot expanse of Morning Woods, 1981. Behind it, the rest of the forest—rendered in lucid jade, brightly dappled taupe, and tawny brown—thrums on, unconcerned with this casualty as it pursues the eternal project of living. The tone of the painting is at once impassive and uplifting, spirited and serene. Here, Dodd has captured loss in the absence of grief, and the liberation one can find in the dispassionate yet vital rhythms of the natural world. Dodd does not paint magnificent cataracts or mountain ranges. Instead, she renders uneventful, everyday moments—a blanket flaring in the breeze, an oblique patch of canopy seen through a skylight—that can ravish the viewer all the more powerfully because their latent magic comes as a surprise. In Forsythia, April, 1976, a blaze of canary yellow applied in energetic zigzags and staccato dabs, radiant against graphite stems and gray-green ground, fills most of a small Masonite panel. With this quotidian burning bush, the artist conjures the sense of having stumbled unexpectedly upon something sacred, spectacular.

In contrast to Dodd’s process of sustained, in situ observation and use of a naturalistic palette, Hughes creates fantastical imaginary landscapes in scalding shades of orange, lilac, and electric blue. Everything in the new paintings here shimmied, bristled, and swooped. The woodland scene titled In a Haze, 2020, includes a trippy tangle of undulating emerald, pink, and tangerine tree trunks, the roots of which cascade across the bottom half of the canvas in arabesques. Berry-red branches and waves of apricot earth seem to writhe against ribbons of salmon and violet. One might think Dodd’s quieter, more realistic canvases would look lifeless and drab beside these riots of squiggling color, but the juxtaposition flattered Dodd, whose evocations of time spent outdoors possess a subtle magnetism lacking in the theatrics of Hughes’s often cloyingly whimsical work. In the younger artist’s pictures, nature is secondary and even irrelevant to her project—an incidental vehicle for painterly flights of fancy. This effect is intentional. As the text accompanying the exhibition stated, Hughes’s images “are about the lure of spaces and portals created by elements of nature, rather than a rumination on nature itself.” Because of this, her paintings operate better in situations where they create their own reality—their proximity to Dodd’s art recalled a sugar-high kid clamoring for attention during a grown-up dinner party. There is a reason why two-person presentations are so often compared to “dialogues.” The overused analogy gets at the basic truth that two perspectives on the same subject can enrich each other. And sometimes the differences between two artists are precisely what makes a pairing generative. The contrasts in this case, however, felt more like contradictions—disparities that created a sense of debate instead of exchange.