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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
ArtSeen

John Dilg: Flight Path

John Dilg, <em>Headdress</em>, 2011. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 x 1 1/2 inches. © John Dilg. Courtesy the artist and The National Exemplar Gallery, Iowa City. Photo: Lance Brewer.
John Dilg, Headdress, 2011. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 x 1 1/2 inches. © John Dilg. Courtesy the artist and The National Exemplar Gallery, Iowa City. Photo: Lance Brewer.
On View
Galerie Eva Presenhuber
June 3 – July 21, 2021
New York

In John Dilg’s paintings, dusk and dawn are suffused with green, and the color seems as inevitable as the setting and rising of the sun. His is an old green, like celadon or lichen, that makes the hues of spring shoots seem rather showy. So rarely does a painter submit completely to one color. But Dilg’s green is not gimmicky; it disperses an interior world onto canvas in a tight palette of straw green, jade green, blue greens, brown greens, and red greens.

How awful to keep repeating the color’s name. But these small landscapes, one after another, do whisper “green, green, green…” in some kind of dusty incantation. The French have a word for it: verdâtre, not as insipid as greenish, and more sinister than verdant—literally a color “that pulls on green,” much better to describe what doesn’t fall into the spectrum but feels like it belongs. In Dilg’s paintings, those motley cousins of green form sprawling fields, sudden cliffs, and distant ranges. Since it is applied dry and so loaded with pigment, Dilg’s paint catches only the raised part of the canvas’s weave, and it appears as if scenes are almost burnished across the surface. Up very close, the pictures’ materiality matches their nostalgic register; their nubbly texture is like grass stains on denim or the tiny geology of skin under cracking layers of mud.

Dilg’s forms are somewhat of a mirage: idealized, bending the land into symbols. There is the sense that this is landscape warped by remembrance—each outcropping or stream overwhelmed by its defining quality, as if described only by a hiker’s directions. In Headdress (2011), a lone rock formation verges on complete anthropomorphism. When figures are included, they appear ossified in the landscape, as in the chiseled profiles in Anglers (2018), their substance as solid-seeming as the mountains beyond. Bugs or stars fleck the sky above, but their color is merely a brown underpainting showing through a layer of green. This inversion enhances the sense that the picture is in a state of fossilization, pigment slowly gathering across its face like moss or algae.

John Dilg, <em>Anglers</em>, 2018. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 x 1 1/2 inches. © John Dilg. Courtesy the artist and The National Exemplar Gallery, Iowa City. Photo: Lance Brewer.
John Dilg, Anglers, 2018. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 x 1 1/2 inches. © John Dilg. Courtesy the artist and The National Exemplar Gallery, Iowa City. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Those warm undertones show through where fields of color meet, thick green giving way to warmer earth tones, and skinny charcoal delineating shapes of like colors. If not for Dilg’s symbolic mode of drawing—pines as regular jagged patterns, waves as simple lines—his compositions could be mistaken for tectonic views, each transition from green to brown a continental break. Looking at the shapes between clouds and sky in the melancholic July 1955 (2021), imaginary fjords and bays come into focus, their crags and outflows seen from overhead as if in a satellite photo; but the dark outline of a cat in the foreground pulls the scene back into horizontal perspective. This is the fundamental tension, between the scenic and the topographic, that makes these paintings worth returning to.

Most of Dilg’s pictures feature a whitish circle fringed by a warm halo, and it is sometimes unclear whether the celestial body is a sun or a moon. The layering of green over red—the opposite of Rembrandt’s formula for flesh—creates an ambiguous sense of depth, light held in suspension by the equivalent forces of illumination and absorption. It is a light that conflates night and day, so shadows are not directional, and the perpetual full moon is more a reminder of time than a marker of any specific moment. Dilg is comfortable with every dimension past flatness existing merely in the symbolic realm.

John Dilg, <em>Twilight Expedition</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 x 1 1/2 inches. © John Dilg. Courtesy the artist and The National Exemplar Gallery, Iowa City. Photo: Lance Brewer.
John Dilg, Twilight Expedition, 2021. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 x 1 1/2 inches. © John Dilg. Courtesy the artist and The National Exemplar Gallery, Iowa City. Photo: Lance Brewer.

The show’s title, Flight Path, reads as a provocation. Arching contrails are a mere distraction in such an earthy landscape. But that shift in perspective—a skyward glance, or the piecing of checkered shapes into geography from thousands of feet in the air—melds memoir and survey into one mass. There are precedents in American painting: Marsden Hartley’s chunky modeling of mountains, Horace Pippin’s fantastical rendering of animals in the woods, Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert iconography. In returning to the same motifs, Dilg builds continuous perfections of his landscape. These are real places, worn by memory into symbols, just as rivers slowly shape gorges and canyons.

In two paintings, nostalgia gives way to elegy. In Approaching Future (2017), a shrinking glacier sends out tiny ice floats into the sea. They are pathetic vessels topped with Christmas tree pines; it seems the ice will melt before they drift out of frame. And in Improvements (2020), a forest has been leveled so that its stumps look more like rock formations than living matter. Is improvements a sardonic remark from the loggers or developers responsible? Or does it refer to the trees that survived, rising resiliently out of the stumps? Landscape painting’s ambivalence, and its impotence in the face of climate change, seems to me directly related to its malleability. Picturing deforestation and climate change in the landscape, as it is imagined and remembered, has become necessary; so Dilg’s stumps and melting glaciers are far from political, but they are true. There is a sickly comfort in the roundness of Dilg’s hand, which steadies the impending disaster in the landscape: everything will change, as it has changed, as it is continuously changing. Perhaps reverence for the land is always a bit fatalistic. It is intensely naïve, what painting does best and does honestly, picturing the world from a comfortable remove. The greenness of these pictures is stifling. These pigments will outlast us.

Contributor

Louis Block

Louis Block is a painter based in Brooklyn.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

All Issues