Terri Dilling is a colorist, and she enjoys dealing with color in monochromatic clouds or round solid forms. She is working toward a personal definition of beauty in the recent show “Vitality” at Mason Fine Art [Feb. 24-Apr.14]. The 11 paintings that were on view also exhibit a strong interest in atmospheric space and decorative strategies. The compositions are airy, with ample space separating defined forms. The works’ materials are listed as mixed media, which appears in most cases to mean acrylic paint with a variety of drawing materials.
Chain Reaction is a 5-foot-square painting on panel. A large, arcing form is articulated by a looping ¾-inch line. The same line repeats in another dull yellow scrawl beneath it and a more compact black scrawl in the lower left of the composition. Floral shapes in white and yellow are integrated into these linear clusters. The painting surface has a milky translucency, allowing a satin haze in some passages. A few pencil or charcoal squiggles are embedded in the paint. The 5 x 5 scale accentuates the gestures in the work by giving the artist space to move. We can imagine Dilling using broad shoulder movements to create these forms. A soft horizontal division separates a black space on the bottom from a large blue area on top, which together make up the background of the painting. Various other small forms drift about in front of this abstracted landscape.
Most of the works feature large fields of color that act as skies or fog. These fields serve as backgrounds for more specific forms. Golden Reverie uses a field of slightly varied white. Like Chain Reaction, it has a horizontal division assembled from separate forms. Varied gestural scrawls bridge from the right side of the work to a golden cloud that extends from the center off of the left edge. A green scrawl cascades downward, near the center. There are patches of tiny looped marks, laid out like the links in chain mail. Clusters of white dots converge and drawn scrawls in graphite or charcoal show through the white field. Black and white dots as well as small loops are repeated throughout the work. The title of the work tells us what she really wants: a reverie in color. This reverie is more important to the work than any reference to external subjects.
Dilling’s gestural language relates to non-objective painters like Cy Twombly, Terry Winters, and Jonathan Lasker who employed mark-making as content. These painters and others like them pushed the language of painterly marks beyond Abstract Expressionism. Later painters have moved gestural language back towards the pictorial. Beatriz Milhazes comes to mind with her radially symmetrical patterns on flat fields. Cecily Brown and her porn derived Ab-Ex explosions is another example of this return to the pictorial. Dilling also combines the gestural with the pictorial by making her fields of color into receding atmospheric spaces. In her paintings, this creates a foreground and a background space, much like an illusionistic landscape. Her color reveries are worked out through atmospheric forms, and are augmented with more concrete repeated shapes.
The artist cites botanical and molecular forms as sources for her work. Essentially, she describes the works as abstractions of natural sequences. Abstract painting is certainly a difficult undertaking, and artists should think their way through it with whatever tools work. That said, the works in their final iteration belie natural form with many of their formal traits. Plant cells, molecules and peptides simply don’t come in perinone orange or quinacridone violet. The deep, fluid spaces in her paintings also seem to pertain to interests well beyond the scientific. These color atmospheres contain their own painterly weather, with drips forming and trailing down the work like precipitation. There is a rich modern history in the painted field of monochromatic color, which involves notions of both catharsis and spiritual transfiguration.
There is some hesitancy in Dilling’s work. In several pieces she seems to have pushed her gestural marks toward the center, fussily avoiding the edge of the canvas or panel. These occasional moments undercut her gestures by indicating restraint. A few of the paintings continue around the edge of the canvas. This move may have sprung from some physical necessity of re-stretching the work, but it has two unfortunate effects. First, it nullifies the edge’s primary function of separating the painting from the wall, and second, it points out the likeness between stretched canvas and furniture upholstery.
Dilling offers viewers an aesthetic experience that effectively taps universal visual experiences, including the pleasure of contemplating color. Her approach to non-objective painting seems to hover between gestural and atmospheric. Decorative repetition adds ordered movement to these works. Her instincts for color and scale usually lead somewhere, and the assortment of painterly tropes that she offers up is worth a look.
“Vitality” was on view at Mason Fine Art from February 24 to April 14.
Orion Wertz is a painter and graphic novelist living in Columbus, Georgia, where he teaches drawing and painting at Columbus State University.