If you come to North Adams to visit or to stay, whatever else you do, whatever else you see, I hope you’ll spend some time on the second floor of the Eclipse Mill, down at the east end of the hallway, where it widens out to form the largest of the floor’s three modest gallery spaces. You’ll find yourself immersed in a lively back-and-forth between the tapestries of Betty Vera (about whose work I hope to say more later) and (what I want to talk about today) the large, ebullient paintings of Dawn Nelson–a sweeping, passionate conversation dominated by outbursts of swirls and ovoids, punctuated by dashes and spatters, with occasional recollections of the human form.
Looking back over the past decade or so of Dawn’s work, we can trace the recent migration of her attention from the human body as a primary subject, or point of departure, to a preoccupation with painting as an embodied process. In conversation, she speaks of dancing with the canvas. She means that literally. The physicality of her process carries implications, to my mind, for the way in which it might best be received. Her gestures are life-size or a little larger, immediate, intimate and impulsive. In them, we find a deep sense of integrity that acknowledges the vast distances within the human frame of reference, distances that encompass and extend the range of the human gesture and of human emotion and that include a spiritual dimension without the alienating effects of otherness. Physical gesture and visual expression are one and the same, unmediated by imagery that is extraneous to or directive of the act of applying paint. We navigate the spaces of these paintings in our own skins. We share with them, that is to say, an in-the-body experience, a repudiation of dualism.
The paintings are ideally situated. The alcove where they hang affords enough space and privacy that we can engage with them on their own terms, as rituals rather than performances. It is necessary, I think, to dance with them, not stand flat-footed, looking on. I say this with a straight face: rock, sway, turn, strut, leap, lead, follow! Only by participating directly, physically, do we begin to understand this work as more than a record of the artist’s exploration of her private intuitive states. Each painting is an opportunity to partner in the act of exploration, in real time. Because the gestures are so big, so full of vitality and invitation, choreographed on the fly, our responses align deeply with the impulses of becoming, with the music of creation. Only by becoming the dancer do we own the dance.
An asymmetrical triptych of three canvases stitched together stretches nearly floor-to-ceiling, while its range of motion extends much farther. The excitability of the center ripples out to the flanking panels not only in the circular, staccato brushwork but also in the draping of the canvases themselves.
References to the figure recur in Dawn’s work from time to time, as if to emphasize the body’s motive role in the making of the image.
The table’s placement barricades us from direct access to this particular canvas, which appears more “stopped” than its neighbors, and altogether less engaged.
On a wall in the artist’s studio: an array of much smaller works created while travelling in Southern Europe last summer. Below, a few of these same images a little closer up:
One other thing about these paintings and their contribution to the conversation down the corridor. Part of the dance Dawn performs involves the rotation of the vertical orientation of her canvases during the painting process, allowing the paint to run — usually in all four directions — so that a loose, woven pattern emerges within the context of the more robust elements, allowing the gravity of the planet to provide–as it does for any dance–a stable floor on which to stand and against which to exert ourselves.