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She painted the stillness, even with a house on fire

ByTeam BB

Apr 12, 2023

Lois Dodd doesn’t do drama. She paints, instead, stillness and silence, always in a stripped-back style notable for its acute perceptiveness and absence of fussiness. Dodd, 95, is the subject of an overview of her long and splendid career at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. (through May 28). She is a poet of windows and reflections; of houses and shacks in Maine; of quarries, iced-over ponds and flowers: cow parsnips, red gladioli, globe thistles, wild geraniums. She rarely paints people.

Why, then, if she’s such a quietist, did she paint a house on fire?

This mysterious painting at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, was first exhibited in a 2009 show at the Alexandre gallery in New York. It formed part of a suite of six large paintings, all depicting a blazing rural house. The gallery’s news release noted that the series was painted “during the final years of the Bush Presidency,” inviting viewers to read the works as some kind of political commentary. I assume Dodd gave the release a green light, but I can find no other evidence of political intention in her work.

Nor do I know if Dodd was painting from her imagination or recording an actual event — although I would wager the latter. It’s not Dodd’s style to cook things up out of nothing. Her art is rooted in close and patient observation. But she also invents and — even more important — omits. Her paintings are highly considered reductions, as concerned with what is best left out as what to include.

A house on fire is a hectic scene. Few things, at least on a local scale, are more dramatic. And yet Dodd manages to give this picture a foursquare, almost archetypal quality. She drains the terrible scene of histrionics and elevates it into something concerning but calm, quiet, almost ineluctable.

In a lovely essay in the catalogue accompanying Dodd’s 2012-2013 show in Kansas City, Mo., and Portland, Maine, the critic John Yau connected her many paintings of windows with a Zen Buddhist precept attributed to the 9th- and 10th-century Chan (or Zen) Buddhist master Yunmen: “Every day is a good day.” Dodd was expert, he meant, at reporting on everyday-ness, on those moments when there is, in effect, nothing to report, and finding goodness in that.

In that spirit, Dodd has painted houses at night in mundane circumstances — when there is in fact nothing to report — and always with beautiful results. Here, however, we’re made witness to an unfolding disaster, a rupture in the proper order of things. Because it is decidedly not a good day when your house is engulfed in flames — flames that pour out of windows, insulting the night sky.

Nonetheless, when I meditate on this painting, I try to apply Master Yunmen’s precept. When I do, my eyes are drawn less to the ravenous flames than to the contrast between the two upper windows, ignited with orange and yellow, and the two ground-floor windows, which remain implacably dark. I see, too, that one side of the building is in shadow, harmonized with the night, even as the side that takes up most of the composition is abruptly illuminated. It’s strange — as if the one house were meeting the same catastrophe with two completely different orders of response.

But maybe that’s how all of us operate. A part of us panics (panic being an appropriate response to emergency, to things going up in flames). Another part of us watches, and maybe even paints what we’re watching.

“Every day is a good day” is an exaggeration, for sure. But “day follows night”? That’s incontestable.

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