Let’s be clear: Dozier Bell is a great artist. By this I mean a master, such as one whose work will be discussed and analyzed in art history curricula a century from now, just as we continue today to discover new depths in the works of Rembrandt or Dürer.
A further clarification: by master, I don’t simply mean that Bell possesses masterful technical skills (although, without a doubt, his handling of acrylics, watercolors and charcoal is incredibly perfect). I mean she’s more of an earthly, flesh-and-blood medium to convey the deepest, simplest truths of the universe and the transcendence possible when we surrender to them. She doesn’t just paint beautiful pictures; it tackles the greatest philosophical themes of existence.
But don’t take my word for it. Instead, make an appointment to see “Dozier Bell” (until June 26) at Sarah Bouchard’s appointment-only gallery in Woolwich. It’s like being in a treehouse, immersed in the living green pulse of nature. Bouchard will leave you alone with the work, and in the utter silence that ensues and the dappled light that streams through the trees and into the gallery, you may have a mystical experience.
Upon entering the gallery, my eye was drawn like a magnet to “22:00”, an acrylic on canvas painting ostensibly of a night sky, the moon emerging from behind the clouds. I say “ostensibly” because the light from this moon – from the pale but radiant luminosity at its source to the diffuse aura it diffuses across the top half of the painting – felt like more than just a depiction of natural phenomena. I could feel the presence of something divine there.
“22:00” had the kind of religiosity that emanated from the paintings of the 19ethe German artist of the last century Caspar David Friedrich. But Friedrich, like other Romantic artists, almost always composed his landscapes with human figures who, by bearing witness to nature, somehow made it real. While these numbers may have been tiny (to more morally implicate the superfluity of humanity against the awesomeness of nature), they nonetheless placed human existence and perception at the center of the cosmos.
Bell, who lives in Waldoboro, eliminates human testimony entirely, transporting his works beyond the inconsistency inherent in humanity to a taste of spiritual transcendence. His point of view is pantheistic: nature and all its phenomena represent real manifestations of God. There is no need for humans at all. Many landscape painters do this, of course. But there is something more ephemeral and ethereal about Bell’s goals.
Light is the primary vehicle for expressing the divine in Bell’s paintings. Whether it’s the lingering sunlight through the mountain mists of “Elevation, 2,” the shining reflection of the moon on the water in “Across the lake,” the smoldering orange light of sun as it sinks behind the horizon in “Treeline, Evening”, or the light of dawn (or dusk) piercing the clouds in the “Messalonskee Swamp” – we know what we touch with our perception of these works is a dimension far, far beyond that in which we live our lives.
And here, it should be noted that Bell achieves all these light effects through multiple mediums. “Elevation, 2” is acrylic on linen. “Treeline, Evening” is acrylic on panel. “Across the lake” is (surprisingly) watercolor on paper. And “Messalonskee marsh” is charcoal on Mylar (you can stare at it for hours and still wonder if it’s actually a black and white photograph).
The fact that all these means arrive at the same psychic and metaphysical ends only underlines the essential truth that the divine takes infinite forms because not only does it permeate everything; this is everything. Further verification of this comes from the fact that this is accomplished at every scale. There’s as much wonder and majesty radiating from the six-inch square “Midday” as the glorious 52 by 48 inches of “Elevation, 2.”
In this sense, these works acknowledge the role of the artist as performer. But Bell seems to understand that artists cannot claim the quality of creativity for themselves; which belongs to the universe. Rather, what they can “possess” in the act of their expression is the technical skill and the fact that they are a unique conduit, shaped by their individual understanding and experience, for the dynamic creation and spontaneous of the universe. Certainly there is a mastery in the rendering of this truth, but it is always palpable in Bell’s paintings that they deal with something beyond human comprehension, and that they are not reached solely by human resources.
In her artist statement, Bell writes that she was influenced by the German concept of Heimsuchung, a term that encompasses two extremes: “daily union with the divine, and the devastation and annihilation of the physical self and/or its environment. Between these two poles is implied an omniscient being. The self, by its very nature, represents separation. All of the great spiritual traditions have recognized the need to let go of our sense of separateness to understand – and step into – the deeper truth of our oneness with all.
Moreover, Bell most often works from memory, not from a photograph or outside. They are not real landscapes in the classical sense of the term, but something evoked by “the filtering function of memory”. In this process, she writes, “aspects of a scene that were incidental disappear, while those that were deeply felt but not seen are given the opportunity to manifest themselves in the painted image”.
These two elements – the abdication of self and the opening to other dimensions of subtle reality – explain the deep sense of resolution and peace that we feel when we look at each image. It’s not just that the paintings are technically sound, although one has a hunch that moving a bird or cloud a single millimeter in any direction could spoil the picture’s flawless composition. It is that Bell’s process allows something more essential (the omniscience of this being) to arise and unify the painting – each tree, fog, cloud, hawk and blade of marsh grass – in its unity with all forms of divine manifestation. In other words, she describes her paintings as “armature(s) for the numinous”.
A few of the paintings feature lines of sight, as if nature were being observed through the lens of a telescope or, in the case of “Quadrant” and “Ten Knots”, a periscope. In these images, Bell is preoccupied with the issue of surveillance. We could dwell on the fear and paranoia of this proposal.
However, if we look at what surveillance tools attempt to achieve, we can also view them as metaphors for the limited perspective through which we struggle to make sense of the unfathomable, to focus on the mic rather than the the macro. These works and two others – “Oculus, nocturnal clouds” and “Oculus, transit” – restrict our perception of divine vastness to something less overwhelming to the constraints of our human brain. Looking at Bell’s paintings strips away our illusions to reveal just how limited an organ of perception or brain truly is.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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