“This Land Is Your Land,” the title of John Dilg’s superb painting show at Steven Zevitas Gallery, implies the scope and grandeur of Woody Guthrie’s ode to democracy and the American landscape. But there’s nothing sweeping about Dilg’s small canvases, which depict animals and land formations with almost pictographic simplicity. They pull you into an intimate, low-key exchange, quiet and deeply felt.
We can attribute their incantatory energy to their size (most are 11 inches by 14 inches), their simplified, folk-art style, and their modest palette. Dilg paints in thin layers, often starting with warm, sandy reds and finishing with chill blues and greens. The red seeps through, imbuing images with a soft glow, like embers in a foggy dawn.
In “Marquette and Bigfoot Discover the Mississippi – 17 June 1673,” that red outlines the silhouettes of two oarsmen in a boat. They are likely the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette, who helped chart the Mississippi River, and, we must assume, the elusive and mysterious Sasquatch. That’s half of what Dilg is getting at in his paintings – some wild part of ourselves we can’t quite capture. A pale moon hovers over the two figures. Enveloped in pale, stony green, it’s a stilling scene, almost iconographic.
Dilg has spoken about symbols in his paintings as regenerative and spiritual. That’s clearly how his pared down landscapes function. They rise like monoliths and course with life-giving waterfalls. The landmass in “Headdress” juts high out of still water. Spiny pine trees stand around the rim, and an icy pool fills the top and spills in a waterfall over the side in a great blue curtain. It’s a landscape with majesty, but its cartoonish lines give it humility, and that blush along the contours suggests hidden heat.
My favorite painting, “Tattoo,” depicts an ocelot lurking on a giant tree limb under another full moon. Its leopard-patterned coat is the most strident image in the show, but the cat holds its head low and wary – a picture of power and restraint. The red undercoat bleeds through even more here; it almost looks as if the painting has rust spots. The aura around the cat looks darker and more foreboding than those in other works.
It’s as if Dilg is painting not a big cat, but a fleeting dream of one, a quivering vision filled with resonance, on the verge of dissolving. That’s how his paintings register: not quite real, yet potent with meaning.
A show fostering risk-taking
A little nook of an exhibition space on one side of the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts functions as the seedpod for “The Infinite Space of the Possible,” a modest exhibition of work by seven residents of the BCA’s Artists Studios Building. There, curator Lynne Cooney has placed text, small objects of contemplation, and art works that describe how the artists were inspired to open up to something new. The show celebrates how the artistic community at the BCA fosters risk-taking.
Some of artists don’t have a great deal in common aesthetically. The show leaps from Victor Ortale’s jazzy streetscapes to Lazaro Montano’s concept-driven explorations of information and identity. But the sense of creative investigation set forth in the side gallery threads this generous show together.
For instance, Rebecca Rose Greene explains that she made “I got by with a little help from my friends,” a wall full of comical cardboard rooster heads (and an additional protuberance that shares another word for rooster), in tribute to friends who supported her through hard times. Each is a portrait. Her “Family,” a similar installation of owl heads (minus the cheeky visual pun), likewise goes into marvelous detail delineating the birds and their expressions.
There are other birds. Kathleen A. Kneeland’s “Good bird, Bad bird” features 100 tiny drawings of passenger pigeons on cardboard tags attached to the wall in a grid with straight pins and string. The variety of pigeons and poses staggers.
Ortale takes his cue as a painter from white line woodblock prints, a style popularized in Provincetown back in the day. His buildings sway and curve, and seem to glow from within. Landscape painter Jon Amburg, in “Cottage, autumn leaves,” saturates his scenes with atmospheric color – here, a small, peaked block of white makes the cottage; the field in front of it is a cool, luminous gulp of blue.
Aileen O. Erickson’s works in shades of black trump her more colorful pieces. She expertly manipulates black watercolor and charcoal, in a piece such as “Distant Houses (Antigua)” to convey the sharp shadows and light of a slatted window and the plants and houses beyond.
Leika Akiyama charts her interior landscape in works such as “Mind Map I,” an installation of collage, splattered paint, and drawings that sprawls over a couple of walls – it’s a woozy piece that doesn’t quite hold together. Her smaller “Furniture Space,” featuring tiny dollhouse furniture affixed to painted panels, is more intriguing – part painting, part interior.
Finally, Montano sends up celebrity culture by dolling up fluorescent light fixtures in pink, with rhinestones and lace, to represent the “Best Supporting Actress Nominees for 2003 (Academy Awards).” They’re flashy, cheap, and flickeringly luminous, but hardly incandescent. Renée Zellweger – who won that year for “Cold Mountain” – where have you gone?
The Infinite Space of the Possible
At: Mills Gallery, Boston
Center for the Arts, 551
Tremont St., through Feb. 2.