Alice Dalton Brown
The impressive retrospective of Alice Dalton Brown’s paintings, seen during March at the handsome new quarters of the Fischbach Gallery in New York City, featured a large (54" x 68") oil study of a shaded entrance to a classical Victorian home. Hint of Autumn (2003) contains all the important elements and themes one associates with Dalton Brown’s oeuvre, which spans some thirty years: the poetics of beautiful classical architectural exteriors, fecund cultivated nature, nurturing sunlight and gentle shadows, limited space and depth of field. One of her signature motifs, translucent curtains, contributes to the wistful, melancholic sense of privacy and intimacy. Hint of Autumn is depicted from the vantage of someone standing inside a room looking out. Sunlight heightens the whiteness of the graceful wooden Grecian columns, spindle-work and balustrades that frame the elongated blue shadows stretched across the wooden deck. Much of what we see is filtered through sheer white curtains that hang inside the glass porch doors. The warm greens, oranges, and yellows in the painting are provided exclusively by lush, shoulder-high clusters of perennials and foliage growing at the edge of the deck, partially blocked by the columns and balustrade of the porch.
In this recent painting the artist has returned to the subject of the Victorian homes that charmed her as a child growing up around Ithaca, New York. For almost two decades, beginning in the 1980s, Dalton Brown pursued her private fascination with paintings of her House, in reality a composite of homes belonging to friends and neighbors. In the beginning most of the paintings were restricted to views of porches with their crisscrossing shadows of columns, poles and roof. In the hundreds of paintings and sketches she created in her Manhattan loft, located near the former studio of Edward Hopper, she explored every nuance of this limited architectural genre, without ever introducing objects, furniture, or humans that might detract or compromise the composition. By the 1990s, she had cautiously moved inside, but continued to focus upon the porch seen from the interior. Like Edward Hopper, whose work she admires, Dalton Brown is fascinated by natural light playing on a wall or floor. Unlike Hopper, however, whose cold light gives his paintings their existential, modernist edge, her light is nurturing and benign. Dalton Brown’s strength lies in her ability to combine her love of these enchanted sanctuaries with a highly developed sensitivity to the formal qualities of art. Indeed, it is no surprise to learn from the artist that she admires the abstract works of Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. Dalton Brown subtly divides her canvases into formal abstract shapes that interact and bond with the other architectural elements in the composition. In Hint of Autumn, a painting-within-a-painting—created by the reflection of columns and balustrades in the glass door on the right of the canvas—provides aesthetic balance to the architectural elements on the left. The reflection of flowers caught in the glass of the door suggests an interior source of light and color within the darkened house, providing wonderful metaphorical inferences.
Several years ago, Dalton Brown dramatically shifted her view, leaving the House to explore water and sky. Several new paintings in the exhibit are almost minimalist in their depiction of large bodies of blue water and blue sky, seen through parted window curtains fluttering gently into an empty room. These scenes are far less tectonic than the series that occupied her for almost twenty years. Distant Echo, Lake Echo I, Transparencies 3, and Light Echo, all painted in 2003, are constructed around a single, frameless window that stretches beyond the top of the painting. And opening between translucent curtains offers a clear view of the sky and water, which the wooden floor of the room seems to approach like the prow of the ship. Sunlight passes through the folds in the billowing curtains, casting diffused, elongated shadows across the floor, which Dalton Brown skillfully integrates into the compositions. Colors range from reddish peach and golden yellow, to a dull purplish-blue striated with tiny flecks of golden ochre where the sunlight catches the rills in the fabric. The use of curtains, to divide and subdivide elements of what is basically a flat, minimalist composition, is crucial to the successful resolution of these paintings. Interspersed among the seventeen paintings in this exhibit are some older works, such as the haunting Columns in Evening Light (1985) and Athenaeum Reflections (1983), which reveal remarkable evidence of continuity and spiritual evolution. Fischbach Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue at 25th street, New York, NY 10001. Telephone (212) 759-2345. On the web at www.fischbachgallery.com
American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2004, Volume 21, Number 2.