Rhodes show blends whimsy, childlike form
Art history is filled with bravura works that call attention to themselves as well as their artists' abilities and perhaps their egos. Think of the cinematic expanse of Veronese's "The Wedding Feast at Cana" or Albert Bierstadt's vast depictions of mountainous landscapes of the American West or the dramatic and muscular canvasses of Abstract Expressionism.
Then look at the small muted oil on canvas paintings of John Dilg, whose effect is like one stanza of a whispered poem compared to the epics mentioned above. The artist, who teaches at the University of Iowa, combines a deliberately subdued palette and a spare roster of images to create landscapes whose modest size — the largest are 16-by-20 inches — belies their prodigious implications.
Dilg's exhibition, "Sources in Another World," will be displayed at Rhodes College's Clough-Hanson Gallery through Dec. 5.
Curiously, Dilg exploits the same rugged and sublime landscape of the American West and specifically Northern California that the great 19th century panoramic artists like Bierstadt and Thomas Moran did. But Dilg pares such familiar and iconic scenes as great waterfalls and towering outcroppings to a set of images and dim but radiant hues that are almost innocent in simplicity and dreamlike in tone. If reality is here, it is of the magical kind.
In one of the exhibition's central pieces, "On Another Planet," a broad and mighty waterfall, depicted in bluish stripes, dominates the whole middle of the painting, while to each side soaring trees, rendered in a childlike manner, as all of Dilg's trees are, frame the scene. In the distance beyond the falls, a line of hills looms beneath a glowing full moon. How to account for the power of such a quietly drawn vista stated in such limited means?
Part of the effect derives from the innate sense of calmness and deliberation that each of these 18 little paintings conveys. It's almost as if Dilg wrests the inmost contemplative spirit from his landscapes, which he builds, seemingly, equally from life and from imagination. His technique whittles away anything inessential yet paradoxically inculcates a feeling of transcendence.
Not that these works are solemn. As well as their sense of subtle spirituality and even elegance, Dilg lends them equally restrained whimsy. One element that contributes to this whimsy is the primitive form of perspective the artist employs, in the sense that objects farther away are smaller than objects in the foreground, though he slyly conveys this element through artful exaggeration.
Then there are slightly more blatant devices like the little weather vane sticking out of the head of the odd creature in "G.P.S." and the tiny goat-like animal perched atop a great hill in the punningly named "Night Falls"; yes, there's also a waterfall.
The exhibition gains resonance from two facing walls that hold, salon-style, miscellaneous groups of objects — advertising placards, self-taught art, drawings by children, the work of colleagues — that capture his eye and inspire him. It's a privilege to be allowed into the mind of an artist this resourceful and strange.