Between Chaos and Order 

Sandra Dawson

at Idao Gallery, through December 22

Sylvia Safdie and John Heward: Memory and Making

at Gallery 312, through December 23

Lying nude on a dark slab, his hands resting behind his head, he looks like a man sleeping, except that his eyes are open. The bed seems to float in a tan sea of splotches, with nearby streaks and incisions echoing its form, enclosing it. Outside this cocoon, confusion reigns. The uneven tan ground, interrupted by red smears and crosslike marks, seems to represent the uncontrollable world of dreams, placing the man on the brink of a voyage into the unknown.

The evocation of dreams in Sandra Dawson's Solitude #3, one of 4 "Solitude" paintings among the 15 works now on view at Idao, will not be new to anyone familiar with symbolist and surrealist art. But the way Dawson puts the idea of an organized composition at risk in order to perch her characters at chaos's edge is genuinely challenging. Her backgrounds evoke weightlessness, flux. Even in Solitude #1, which places its figure on the ground, Dawson suspends the law of gravity: what seem to be boulders rise in columns from a heap, while more float above, almost as if they've become balloons. And the figure, enclosed in a tentlike structure, once again inhabits its own world.

Dawson's work creates a powerful tension between figure and disorder, the living human and organic decay. Accentuating the tension are contrasting media: the figures and shapes are mostly drawn in colored pencil, while the backgrounds are mostly mixtures of asphalt, oil, and pigment--it feels as if we're looking at two different worlds. The many stains and incisions suggest damage, as if this were a ruined picture from long ago. In the "Solitude" works and five others, the frame and flat picture area are made of a single piece of cast plaster, and the "frame" is painted to look like wood; its hand-sculpted gnarled shapes also seem decayed.

A Chicagoan born in 1963 in Clarendon Hills, Dawson recalls the influence of her grandmother's home, which she describes as a "wonderland of a house, full of keys and buttons and boxes and scraps--all kinds of things that kids love to get into." Her art making began with "putting things together, making collages, creating fantasies," and her paintings still resemble collage: "I use everything that I have: oil, latex, acrylic, tar, colored pencils, conte crayons. I have always worked very spontaneously, and my work is almost like writing in a diary." Nonetheless Dawson--who's exhibited often in Chicago of late (some other works are now at Gallery A)--achieves a consistent, recognizable look.

Behind this look, it seems, lies a desire to escape the mundane physical world--and Dawson's suggestive surfaces often come close to effecting this escape. She says she wants "to open windows and reveal doorways leading directly to the heart." Bird Man straightforwardly demonstrates this wish: an athletic male atop a multistory building stands with his hands stretched above him, head tilted upward. Streaks of white paint surround his head and torso with an otherworldly glow, suggesting not only that he wishes to take flight but that he wants to escape the world's buildings and gravity entirely.

Other works are more like jokes on such aspirations. The figure in Reformed Ways #3 holds a pole in each hand, a chicken head on top of one and a horse head on the other. When Odilon Redon and Max Ernst depicted part-human, part-animal figures, they offered a powerfully disturbing glimpse of some netherworld of alternative creatures. By contrast the Dawson figure seems strictly human, just playing a game with some props, disguises that can be adopted or removed at will.

Upside Down Man #2 borders on the cute: three childlike figures stand on their heads on the front car of an abstracted toy train, their faces relatively flat, lacking detail or resonance. In Trees #2, which shows a train track between two trees leading to a house in the background, most of the streaks and incisions parallel the tracks or the trees, so that instead of representing a different world, the background is rather easily unified with the rest of the image, almost decorative. This painting opens no doorways; instead it's simply a picture, stuck in its own physicality.

The sculptures of Sylvia Safdie, by contrast, transcend their very solid materials: there's emotion and poetry here, but it's a poetry of absence as much as presence. Most of her sculptures use glass or mirrors, which focus the eye on adjacent objects and direct one's attention to an invisible realm, to the symbolic and transformative possibilities of her simple materials. These are beautiful in themselves, but the gaps within the pieces are what evoke feelings of separation, distance, loss.

Safdie's sculptures are on view with her drawings, and with installations and drawings by her fellow Montreal artist John Heward, at Gallery 312. There are almost 60 works in all, including a few outdoor installations. While I liked drawings by both artists--the calligraphic lines in some of Heward's large drawings suggest a hidden language, and the mixed media of Safdie's drawings create multiple levels of depth--what really moved me were Safdie's sculptures. But at first they don't look like much. Threshold consists of a pile of white stones on one side of a large vertical plate of glass; on the other side is a large aluminum bowl. The glass is both transparent and reflective; but from one side the bowl's reflection never merges with the stones, while from the other the stones' reflection can be seen right on top of the bowl, almost as if they were inside it. These three basic materials--stones, bowl, glass--become a meditation on separation. The stones can never really be put into the bowl, except by the imagination; and thus the faint reflection becomes a metaphor for the mind's eye.

Books as repositories of knowledge are also important to Safdie; many of her titles include the word sefer, which is Hebrew for "book," and she says that she thinks of the vertical glass plate dividing many of them as "almost like a page." Sefer No. 38 is one of many in which the artist plays the role of a collector: on one side of a platform a seashell sits atop a glass plate while another seashell lies beneath it, like two specimens of "animal architecture" on display; a vertical glass plate at the center of the platform separates these items from a large, dark rock. The simple bifurcated geometry of the "Sefer" series also focuses attention on the heart of these works: the wispy, ghostlike reflections that come to stand for all the possibilities solid things themselves can't represent--an object's aura, its unseen past, its unpredictable future.

Born in 1942, Safdie grew up in what is now Israel and remembers the 1948 war following the founding of the Jewish state. But she says what influenced her the most was her awareness of the land: her family grew vegetables and raised chickens. Her brother Moshe--now a noted architect--kept a beehive. "As a child," Safdie recalls, "I used to collect earth fragments, seeds, worms, leaves, stones, bones, and spend hours observing ants." She stored these things in a cave: "It was my own place, nobody else knew about it. Many years later I came back to Israel, and I realized my studio had become the cave I had as a child."

Her family moved to Montreal when Safdie was 11, and she found the experience "extremely difficult, traumatic." In a completely different culture and climate, with two new languages to learn, she felt an "unbelievable longing and loss." I thought of her words while looking at Sefer No. 33, in which a vertical glass plate separates a metal ball from a coconut cracked open and bronzed. The opening is just big enough for the metal ball, whose reflection in the glass is superimposed on the coconut. But as one leans forward, the glass ends just before the ball's reflection would fill the opening. One's impulse to put the ball in the hole is thwarted not only by the glass but by the precise mismatch of reflections, movingly evoking a perpetual incompleteness.

Contrasting systems of depiction in Sefer No. 9, one of the most complex works, evoke a different kind of distancing. A bronzed ear of Indian corn, with some gaps in the bronzing that reveal the dark kernels beneath, lies on a plate of glass. Beneath it is an open book showing pencil sketches of ears of corn. Safdie has placed the broken-off bits from the bronzed ear over the sketch, making it seem partly colored. Here are four ways of seeing corn: an actual ear, the bronzed ear, drawings, and a drawing "bronzed." The book's pages can be turned, Safdie told me, to discover many additional corn drawings. If the book represents comprehensive knowledge, and the different kinds of images suggest different ways of knowing, then the bronzing and the drawings alike suggest that art inevitably wreaks changes on nature, isolating us from the natural world.

Safdie altered the exhibit's most moving piece while she was installing it, when the prime minister of Israel was assassinated, and retitled it For Yitzhak Rabin and for Peace. On the floor a circular heap of small stones rises almost like a burial mound, but at its center is a depression in which sits a round mirror. Light directed onto the mirror reflects up to a glass sphere partly filled with water; the water and glass focus the light into a bright point on the wall behind the sphere. I was reminded of Louis Kahn's proposed Holocaust memorial, a group of large translucent cubes. Safdie memorializes Rabin not in a physical monument but in light directed through water. The mystery of being human, her sculptures seem to say, cannot be reduced to any physical thing--one must seek that mystery in the realm beyond objects.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brooke Hunter.

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