Tag Archives: Laura Dodson

Catalogue essay accompanying “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition at Five Myles


Nancy Grimes, Custody (2017), oil on linen, 16 x 32″; courtesy the artist

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When asked to participate in an exhibition centered on the theme of “bête noire”, not a few of the invited artists scratched their heads and furrowed their brows. At least, that seemed to be the gist of their responses.

A French literary trope connoting a person or object that is intensely disagreeable and to be strenuously avoided? What right-minded person would want to be lumped under that rubric? The emphasis of the phrase, however, is as much on degree as substance: intensity and strenuousness figure prominently. There are plenty of things that are irksome, but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.


Natasha Hesketh, Portrait of What Is Not Being Said (2016), acrylic on paper, 24 x 18″; courtesy the artist

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How these paintings, photographs and sculptures embody the notion of “bête noire” is as idiosyncratic as the visions informing them. Contradictions are abundant. The digitally manipulated dreamscapes of Laura Dodson mull the intransigence of memory and, along with it, the disappointments of nostalgia. The piecemeal and seemingly dehumanizing nature of contemporary relationships are deftly negotiated in the works-on-paper of Natasha Hesketh. Thomas Nozkowski’s off-kilter abstractions embody sharply felt if distinctly occluded encapsulations of lived experience. David Hornung’s ramshackle iconography–at once, homespun and hieratic–serves as a conduit for a dry and whimsical poetry. Matthew Blackwell and his revolving band of cartoonish grotesques are less given to reverie than a frantic and sometimes enraged form of slapstick.

Comedy filters through the work of more than a few of these artists. A mordant wit can be divined in the vases of Elisa D’Arrigo–gnarled vessels that admit to a balletically contrived pathos. Nancy Cohen’s hobbled amalgamations of biomorphic form and utilitarian purpose are charged with tender irony. Industrial means endow Fara’h Salehi’s sculptures of insect life with a streamlined efficiency that doesn’t waylay biological specificity. Specificity is also Loren Munk’s domain, albeit transferred to the art world, in which the ebb-and-flow of history is inventoried with unyielding diligence and chromatic punch.

Nancy Cohen_Two-Step.jpg

Nancy Cohen, Two-Step (2015), glass, metal, rubber, wire and handmade paper, 22 x 22 x 10″; courtesy the artist

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Other images are moody and mysterious, indicative of nothing so much as the limits of understanding. Stephanie Hightower’s paintings create an enigmatic patience game from diagrammatical overlays of topographical shapes, silhouettes, and fleeting allusions to history. Lee Tribe’s totemic effigies, whether rendered in steel or charcoal, evince a temperament alternately driven by the heroic and the haunting. The myriad and often unsettling complications of family are rendered with luminous clarity in the tableaux of Nancy Grimes.

A laundry list of artists only goes so far in elaborating the overriding theme of a given exhibition. The true test comes with how the works themselves engender and underline surprising commonalities, unbridgeable peculiarities, and nagging attractions. The juxtapositions set out in “Bête Noire” are multivalent, not a little irksome, stubbornly put forth, and undeniable in their integrity. The puzzlement is yours for the taking.

© 2017 Mario Naves




“Bête Noire” curated by Mario Naves @ Five Myles

Mario Front

Invitation artwork: David Hornung, A View of Monuments (2017), matte acrylic and oil, 40 x 40: courtesy the artist

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I’m pleased to announce “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for Five Myles, an exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“There are plenty of things that are irksome,” I write in the essay accompanying the exhibition, “but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.”

You can read the entire essay in the online catalogue accompanying the show.

The reception will take place on Saturday, November 11th, between 5:00-8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will run until December 17th. For information please check the Five Myles website.

“Intricate Expanse” @ Lesley Heller Workspace

Intricate Expanse

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I’m pleased to announce “Intricate Expanse”, an exhibition I’ve curated for Lesley Heller Workspace.

“Intricate Expanse” features the work of six artists, each of whom creates encompassing compositions without sacrificing a distinct sense of their constituent parts.

Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar and Maritta Tapanainen don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but embrace both simultaneously–to sometimes tenacious, often ruminative and, at odd moments, comic effect.

The notion of “expanse”, for these artists, includes the physical parameters of pictorial and sculptural space, as well as the sweep of imagery contained within them. “Intricacy” is embodied both through touch and vision, by attention paid to the particularities of surface and process, and the metaphorical allusions that are consequently set into motion.

The resulting pieces unfold and disperse even as they are punctuated by a consistent sense of focus.

The exhibition opens on Sunday, March 15, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. I hope you’re able to stop by.

“A Tempest in the Laboratory”; The Photographs of Laura Dodson

Laura Dodson, Between Ripe (2009), archival print, Ed. 1/5, 17-1/2″ x 17″; courtesy Kouros Gallery

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The relationship between painting and photography has been charged since Day One or, at least, since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in 1826. Painters were alternately alarmed and liberated by the new technology. The French neo-classicist Jean Dominique Auguste Ingres signed an 1862 petition against “any assimilation that might be made of photography to art”. Eugène Delacroix, Ingres’ contemporary and nemesis, took the opposite tack, stating that photography could aid painters in rising “to unknown heights.”

If some painters feared their function as image-makers was to be supplanted by a machine that “sees and reproduces everything without thinking”, photographers, particularly those driven to push the medium beyond mere reportage, were keenly aware of painting’s cultural dominance. In a suite of images titled Equivalents, the pioneering American art dealer and photographer Alfred Steiglitz famously set out to beat painting at its own game. Painting was, for many years, the chip on photography’s shoulder.

In the early twenty-first century, mixed media is the coin of the realm. Artistic categorization is considered aesthetically constricting. Discussions about painting and photography as disciplines with their own unique characteristics and traditions are pooh-poohed as quaint. Which isn’t to say there isn’t an ongoing dialogue between the two art forms. The conversation has, in fact, intensified. Renowned photographers like Thomas Struth, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson and Andreas Gursky consciously blur boundaries and play the photograph-as-painting card.

As advances in digital technology allow for an undreamt of degree of imagistic manipulation, the photographer’s role as documentarian and artist has been complicated. The medium’s vaunted objectivity was always compromised–that is to say, fictionalized–by the artist’s sensibility. In the age of Photoshop, photography’s fictive capabilities have increased exponentially. There ain’t nothin’, it would seem, a photographer can’t do.

Laura Dodson–photographer, teacher and art theorist–has long been keenly aware of photography’s status as an arbiter between realism and artifice, of observed phenomenon and interior states of mind. She’s wise to the ways in which technology can shape and alter vision. Trained as a street photographer, Dodson was steeped in the tradition of “the decisive moment”–Henri Cartier Bresson’s notion of the split second wherein a photographer transforms the ephemeral into poetry.

That didn’t stop Dodson from asking tough questions of photography or the culture in which it was created. Influenced by the theory-laden prerequisites of Post-Modernism–Laurie Simmons was an early inspiration–Dodson grew dissatisfied with street photography. Shifting gears, she began manufacturing scenarios–sometimes with figures, mostly with objects–to photograph. Spontaneity was, if not sacrificed, then given an atypical forum.

Laura Dodson, Lust for Sleep (2009), archival pigment print, Ed. 1/5, 28″ x 22″; courtesy Kouros Gallery

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Dodson’s photographs increasingly became a form of theater and, later, a conduit for personal reverie. Given the persistent and often unnerving intimacy inherent in Dodson’s dioramas–particularly theStill Creatures series and subsequent work–it comes as little surprise to learn that Nan Goldin’s bohemian mise-en-sceneThe Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), was a formative touchstone. Dodson’s art, then, offers an astringent mix of the heady and the romantic, the intensely orchestrated and the psychologically resonant.

“When you move to the studio from the street,” Dodson wrote on the occasion of her 2010 exhibition at Kouros Gallery, “the world in all its unpredictability is no longer at your disposal and you run the risk of becoming static. You have to create a tempest in your laboratory.” How exactly Dodson creates these “tempests”–moody accumulations of thrift shop tchotchkes, fauna, flora and food set bobbing within eerie and aqueous environments–is something of a professional secret. The photos are subsequently transformed through the use of digital technology. It’s worth noting that the “How did she do it?” factor never diverts the viewer from the disconcerting feelings Dodson both stills and puts into motion.

Simultaneously microscopic in focus and otherworldly in purview, Dodson’s pictures are precisely choreographed and meticulously executed without ceding an iota of dreamlike fluidity. Pictures like Dry Land and the talismanic Between Ripe (both 2010) are, in their silky elisions of space, boundless but also severely circumscribed. Channeling Surrealist disquietude and establishing a pictorial order that recalls the Renaissance in its clarity, Dodson gives body to a muffled, earnest and crystalline symbolism.

Childhood is a recurring touchstone–dolls and other toys figure prominently in the work–as is a yearning sense of, not nostalgia exactly. The pictures are too acidic to encourage out-and-out sentimentality. Lust for Sleep (2010), with its snuggled strands of blond and auburn hair, is nothing if not a reliquary, but for what exactly? It’s enough that the feelings are honed, elaborated upon and allowed a degree of independence.

Dodson’s art has never been exhibited in a gallery dedicated exclusively to photography. It makes sense: Dodson’s atmospheric runs of lush color, mysterious slurs of space and subdued, if decidedly pointed, expressionism share common ground less with Robert Frank than Odilon Redon. Which is to say that within Dodson’s oeuvre, painting, photography and high tech achieve an uncommon tete-a-tete that is, at once, here-and-now and back to the future. Ingres would be horrified, but Delacroix would find Dodson to be a kindred spirit.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Cognoscenti.