Sandra Dawson’s mixed-media paintings, which were on view this summer at Byron Roche Gallery in Chicago, are about layering. She builds up her surfaces from very thin layers of sheet rock on panel, covered by skins of acrylic and oil paint, then etches with pencil. Sometimes she scrapes the surface for a weathered look or adds glitter, sequins, lace or fragments of letters. The images look like walls encountered in an old house, with fresh pictures pasted over shadows of previous generations of pattern. History and memory linger in these palimpsests. In The Dreamer and the Dream (2007) an illusionistically painted woman in a black slip curls up under an arc of green griffons—flat, drawn design elements. The vignette is nested within three old-fashioned borders, and the entire composition is kept off-kilter by the addition of a right-hand panel with floral arabesques and many-petaled haloes on a faded gold ground. Dawson’s training as a printmaker is obvious in this intense attention to texture. She frequently incorporates text into her images, as in The Sky and the Sand (2007). The petal-halo stamps from The Dreamer and the Dream reappear, clustered at the edges of the composition. The sky here is a distressed field of cryptic phrases—“the storm and the calm, the sun and the sky, the tears and the night, the breath and the life”—in stenciled capital letters. This strangely prophetic writing on the wall is laid, with varying degrees of definition, over simplified outlines of a Venus de Milo cartoon. A curved predella of panels with childlike nudes crosses the bottom of the image. The rich, weathered colors create the patina of an old and precious manuscript.
Dawson’s iconography is rooted in folk art, mythology and nature. White Flowers (2007) has the look of a Victorian botanical illustration. Four calla lilies float dead-center, their emblematic isolation emphasized by the distressed red background and the surrounding pair of trompe l’oeil frames. The ornithological subject of Blue Jay (2005) does not present the same sharp silhouette. With its scumbled blue feathers, the bird is almost overwhelmed by the quatrefoil wallpaper backdrop. The nested frames around it are aggressively painterly. Fragile (2006) strikes a happy medium between readability and complexity. The two birds poised against a worn decorative backdrop suggest a fresco in a mughal palace, the sort of archeological source material that William Morris would have creatively scavenged for a textile design. The printed “FRAGILE” label at the top alludes to the delicacy of both natural lifeforms and art works. Dawson’s tactile images celebrate the idea of the handmade and find beauty in decay. The way she works over her surfaces, erodes them herself, becomes an implicit commentary on the physical history of art objects. The influence of children’s imagery and Outsider Art is clear, but Dawson has remarkably catholic taste. Among contemporary artists she cites as favorites Squeek Carnwath, for her simplified shapes and roughened surfaces; Kiki Smith, for her range of medium and storytelling; and the German painter Anselm Kiefer for his monumental canvases encrusted with unexpected materials. Historically, her heroes range from Giotto to the Post-Impressionists and the German Expressionists.
Dawson is not, however, an epic painter in the mode of Giotto (or even Kiefer), nor does she tackle social issues with a satirist’s bite. What she makes are intimate visual meditations on the surfaces of things, using perennial symbols of the human imagination as a way of insinuating herself into the viewer’s mind. Her colors—indigo blue, deep red, aubergine, parchment gold—are seductive, and the hand of an artist is everywhere apparent in these modest, intuitive and lyrical works. In some of her most recent panels the build-up of materials has the physical impact of a bas-relief. Between (2007) features a ridged halo with a vignette of two red-breasted, green-winged birds. A frieze of stylized flowers and an incised border beneath them continue the theme of an ancient wall, bathed in a cloudy green patina. Even simpler and more effective is Tomorrow and Another (2007), a nearly square, parchment-colored, heavily gessoed panel incised with a couple of spindly twigs starred with impastoed cyclamen-pink blossoms. The Leap (2007) belongs to a series of butterfly paintings the artist has been working on. With blue and green markings, the mounted specimen is surrounded by a heavily embossed trompe l’oeil frame and displayed against what looks like faded rose-patterned wallpaper in red and green. Part of the formal interest here lies in the play of the horizontal frame within the square (24" x 24") panel. Occasionally, Dawson includes small figures in her works, not always to their advantage. In Rain (2007) a girl in blue appears with three out-of-scale purple flowers under a bower of thorny roses. It’s a charming image, somewhat suggestive of a fairytale illustration. The works without human figures, however, remain the most compelling, as they play with natural specimens and layers not only of surface but also of stylization. Byron Roche Gallery, 750 N. Franklin Street, # 105, Chicago, Illinois 60610. Telephone (312) 654-0144. On the Web at www.byronroche.com