Introducing . . . . Jessica Dickinson

Lisi Raskin

In a cultural environment where information is received in 30-second blurbs, as gargantuan billboard propaganda, and on swiftly scrolling tickers, Jessica Dickinson’s paintings represent the opposite end of the perceptual spectrum. Meant to be absorbed slowly, gradually, Dickinson’s meticulous paintings are a digression from the breathless pace that characterizes our age of information.

When I think of the work of Jessica Dickinson, I immediately jump to a fairly well-developed fantasy I have about the artist Emma Kunz, a visionary who worked in Switzerland in the early part of the 20th century. In my fantasy, Kunz is in a trance, it is late at night, her room is illuminated by candlelight, and she is accumulating marks and colors, trying to imbue her drawings with healing properties. To dismiss this fantasy as mere romantic mush would be to miss the point. In fact, the critical agency of painting and drawing rests in the hands of artists who believe that artmaking is an activity that can carry energy and emotion and are able to synthesize this belief into a powerful experience for the viewer. Jessica Dickinson is such an artist. Her work challenges the current ethos of hysterical panic, generated from social, political, and visual conditions that make it difficult to give credence to notions like faith, emotion, and intuition. Dickinson's work summons these occurrences, transforms them into felt experiences, and subsequently facilitates something that cannot be quantified.

Dickinson's approach to artmaking is radical. She has set up her practice in opposition to contemporary painting's insecurity; that it must emulate fast-paced digital and popular culture. Dickinson’s paintings are rooted in modest events, the likes of which take place in silence, in our heads, and in the space created by painting and time. She starts with an intuitive sense that may, for example, stem from the desire for a specific surface. Dickinson was particularly struck by the way time and the elements decayed Cimabue's frescoes at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. She chooses visual information for its emotional, spiritual, or psychological resonance. She then sets to work in small gestures that accumulate over the cycle of many months in the studio. Her lexicon of actions includes the layering of tiny marks and washes onto a fresco-like ground. She deftly works back into these marks, scraping away color and revealing what lies beneath, thus forming and unveiling new physical events that become the skin of her paintings. She trusts in time, chance, and her own intuition and uses these principles to guide a series of decisions in order to arrive at a form. A lot of what happens is accidental, pertinent information is drawn out, and Dickinson proceeds, incorporating failure as success. The results are structured and reductive paintings that resist any mode of distribution other than direct experience.

Like Jay DeFeo’s work, Dickinson's paintings elude technological reproduction. It is simply impossible to understand the gravity of what the work communicates via pixel interpellation. Dickinson's paintings induce an oneiric state in which feelings of desire and curiosity are slowly activated in your consciousness. At the same time, information enters through your pores, triggering sensate memory: the stuff that you retain somewhere in your being yet can no longer fully recollect. Dickinson herself has stated that she is interested in creating work that is perceptually slow yet emotionally charged because, like Kunz, she believes in the efficacious influence of art that connects with other peoples' senses and feelings.

So what is a perceptually slow, emotional experience? Recently I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson's studio where she had just finished HOLD FAST THE SOURCE. The painting is comprised of a diffused, spectral pattern of feathery hot spots configured according to an intangible, spiral logic. In the crooks of a spiral, Dickinson transmuted a grid of light and shadow that loosely obscured the pattern, the way a curious child might cover her eyes at a horror film. Dickinson chose this grid because a similar phenomenon appeared daily on the wall of her studio. The conflation of these two patterns positions the spiral just outside of full perceptual grasp. As a result of this withholding, I found myself repeatedly attempting to enter the painting in order to get closer to it psychically, optically, and emotionally. Each time I approached the painting, I felt a visceral tugging behind my sternum that was amplified as the painting continued to resist my advances. The painting held me in a specific emotional space, never allowing me to fully access an event whose luminous presence I could sense.

What distinguishes this from the experience of other paintings that may employ emotional affect in order to achieve a desired response in the viewer is that my own subjectivity became part of the meaning of the painting. I was acutely aware that my reaction to the work derived from the merging of my consciousness with the intentionality of the painting itself. The resulting, co-created space functioned like the disjointed and lucid details of a dream that eludes full recollection. All this was made manifest within my memory and my body leaving fragmented specifics and an acutely palpable emotional resonance. When I told Dickinson that I had felt a tugging at the area surrounding my sternum while viewing the painting, she hesitantly admitted that while deciding where to start the center of the spiral, she stood in front of the painting and let her brush fall on the point that mirrored where her heart was.

This particular set of events empirically confirms that Dickinson is capable of transmitting a tremendous amount of energy and emotion through the medium of paint. She maintains that the ultimate goal of her work is to create an open space for contemplation that allows for varying subjectivities. In addition to this, her work serves as a reminder that painting can provide the perfect time and space in which to contemplate an emotion or event. Our contemporary perceptual cadence is, to a large extent, based on the alarmed responses that large-scale modes of distribution tend to dictate. Therefore, it is timely that Dickinson's work should dig into a forgotten yet ineffable part of human ontology by encouraging the viewer to invest once again in the slowness of the bodily, emotional, and subjective experiences.

Lisi Raskin is an artist and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work has been exhibited internationally at various institutions including Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin; the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania; and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. In addition to contributing to projects such as North Drive Press and HTV Magazine, she has published reviews in Frieze and C magazine. She is currently a visiting lecturer at The New School University and at Columbia University and has taught at the Universitaet der Kunste in Berlin. Raskin was the 2005 recipient of the Guna S. Mundheim Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin.