Sunday, May 04, 2014

Of the Earth, Looking at Dorothy Caldwell: Silent Ice/ Deep Patience

Dorothy Caldwell: Silent Ice/ Deep Patience
March 21 to June 1, 2014
Art Gallery of Peterborough
Peterborough Ontario, Canada

Gallery view, with A Red Hill / A Green Hill, 2012 at far right.
photo by Lesli Onusko © 2014 Art Gallery of Peterborough
Dorothy Caldwell is an American born Canadian artist. Dorothy Caldwell is a master mark maker. Dorothy Caldwell’s practice is based in the use of textile techniques to colour, mark and embellish the 2D picture plane with the essence of (what is) landscape. Beginning at time in the early 1970s when late abstract expressionism and pop art are being displaced by the conceptual and the feminist art movement has established itself. Inspired by the surface treatment in the staining in Mark Rothko’s painting, “staining so light the weave of the canvas came through” *1 and influenced as many were by the 1971 exhibition "Abstract Design in American Quilts" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York which is now consider instrumental in igniting the quilt renaissance of the 20th and 21st centuries. She has built a career on staining and stitching cloth. She has met the challenge of working in this way and transcended what the contemporary art world has considered the limited boundaries of the medium of textiles.
Dorothy Caldwell with work How Do We Know When It’s Night? 2010, wax & silkscreen resist on cotton with stitching and appliqué photo by Lesli Onusko © 2014 Art Gallery of Peterborough
Spending time in Australia’s Outback and in Canada’s Far North she has, with this exhibition, reached a new level of expression that strips the nonessentials away from documenting the land leaving shape, colour and line to work in concert much like Cezanne. Working with what was there as did the unknown cave painters in Lascaux Caldwell presents both an “I MAX” vista and the entire minutia of the vast landscapes she is encountering in each piece of work.  Some of this work was seen in the fall of 2013 in London, Dublin and Harrogate as a feature exhibition in the Knitting and Stitching Show.  Her audience holds her in high regard and has been building through sold-out workshops and lectures spanning her over 40 year career as an artist exhibiting in Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia and the UK. This new body of landscape images is a game changer in contemporary landscape art.  

Detail of “A Red Hill / A Green Hill” photo by Joe Lewis taken with permission
I felt this work somewhere in the pit of my stomach, a pit of ochre mud perhaps, Stendhal Syndrome perhaps. While it’s all in the details the whole surface of these works envelop you, they take your breath away, and your heart rate accelerates. You feel the atmosphere of the “Where”. Dorothy Caldwell: Silent Ice/ Deep Patience is an exhibition that engages the senses. Your eyes travel constantly across the surface.  When you try to pause to examine a detail, a stitch, a stain; suddenly a mark of colour draws your eye elsewhere. You breathe deeply to still the motion. Caldwell's signature repetitive marks stitched or discharged spread across the walls in piece after piece after piece, hypnotically holding your attention and driving you mad with distractions as you try to take it all in. The dryness of the air, the harsh light that washes out colour, these depictions of the Australian Outback and Canada’s north exist side by side, nothing really signifying its specific locale. You take another breath, give up control, and enjoy the dance you are taken on.

Gallery view (large work at left is called Map Without Words, 2013; the work at the far right is called Walking on Tundra, 2013) photo by Lesli Onusko © 2014 Art Gallery of Peterborough
Colour rubbed off rusty bits of found metal and dirt of different minerals make up the stained cottons that have been made velvety smooth. The colour, both muted and rich, is occasionally blurred with quiet spots of grey that read greasy as if vaseline has been smeared on the surface.  These are lustrous, almost luminous like mother of pearl or dirty ice.  They stand out and float above the densely marked surface. These smears appear in several pieces. They stopped me in my tracks because of the lack of an instantly identifiable process. Are they burnished, as their smoothness suggests; or satin, which has been embedded rather the appliquéd; or merely tarnish? Is this some chemical reaction brought on by exposure to the air? So much in these works seems like a natural reaction, a growth (like lichen on a rock) rather than separately applied embellishment.
View of collection from above photo by Lesli Onusko © 2014 Art Gallery of Peterborough
Done within a very short time span (2010-2013), this show represents work done in, and inspired by two distinct landscapes.  While there is noticeable difference between overall dark and overall light pieces, this work is about the geography not the geographic location. Off to one side is a meticulously organized collection of specimens/ artifacts presented steampunk style with curio cabinetry and shelving all holding debris/ castoffs/ garbage gathered on-site in both locales. Rusty tin cans, bones, rocks (chunks of red ochre) shells, slate (which she has scratched marks into, suggesting both follies and aboriginal pictograph). There is a collection of “notebooks” of her explorations. As Jennifer Angus in her fictional Victorian ethnographic explorer series “A Terrible Beauty” invented a decor for her explorer to inhabit, Caldwell herself is in this case the explorer.  She is both the navigator and the one doing the “Scientific” documenting, always aware that she is the intruder rather then the inhabitant. This may explain the frantic motion of her marks, her stitching the need to take down in short hand the essentials of the sites and removing herself from the surface of the land before she causes an impression and leaves yet another scar of human interference.

 view of collection box and books; works on wall from left to right are Comfort of Fog, 2013, History of Stone, 2013, and Red Hill/Black Hill, 2013. photo by Lesli Onusko © 2014 Art Gallery of Peterborough
There is an incredible peaceful beauty to this body of work which will cause the viewer a moment of awe, understanding process or imposing meaning on the work will not alter the effect it has you. I can only call this experience an intimate moment of connection. The landscape is not captured; it is experienced. Dorothy Caldwell: Silent Ice/ Deep Patience is organized by the Art Gallery of Peterborough in Peterborough Ontario Canada opened on March 22 2014 and will tour to other venues. An exhibition catalogue is in production and will be available later this year.


*1 Dorothy Caldwell Interview Surfacing Journal volume 5 Issue 1, 1984

Art Gallery of Peterborough
250 Crescent Street
Peterborough ON K9J 2G1

Dorothy Caldwell: Silent Ice/ Deep Patience March 21 to June 1, 2014, Art Gallery of Peterborough then touring to St Mary's Art Gallery in Halifax, then the Cambridge Galleries, exhibition catalogue is in production.

Dorothy Caldwell is a graduate of Temple University, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, PA, 1970, the 1990 Recipient of the Prix Saidye Bronfman Award, Associate Fellow University of Nebraska, Lincoln as of 2005 her influence on the current and coming generation of artist and crafts persons working in textiles, with textiles in book making and surface exploration grows daily, she is represented in Toronto by David K Gallery.

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