Monday evening was the opening of painter Jane Dickson’s solo exhibition Seen at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects. The small gallery space on Forsyth Street was packed with people—including Dickson herself—sipping wine and enjoying the display of the artist’s simple yet entrancing paintings.
There is a history and personality to Dickson’s work, as it is inspired by her experiences as a resident of Times Square in the 1980s. The neighborhood was different then: the crime rate was something to be genuinely feared, sex shows were on every corner, and Disney had yet to get involved. However, her work does not look like iconic depictions of the 1980s; there are none of the familiar cultural markers we have come to associate with that decade—no Ray-Bans, big hair, or Madonna here. Rather, Dickson’s dreamy New York nighttime scenes have a timeless and sometimes-antique look to them, as if they could’ve been painted ages ago, reminiscent of classic red light districts or hazy far-off metropolitan hubs. They manage to be neon-lit and darkly dreary simultaneously, reflecting the indulgent and loud nature of the neighborhood while also including the sadness and seediness. Her work is similar to Edward Hopper’s lonely oil works or Toulouse-Lautrec’s vibrant portrayals of late 19th-centruy French excess, if his works were a little gloomier and a bit smoggier.
Dickson’s paintings don’t have a lot of people in them. This is not the overpopulated Times Square we know today, where you’re lucky to walk a few blocks without running into some slow-moving tourist or walking advertisement. They’re far lonelier. Sometimes a body is seen in the distance, or one figure is the focus. There are a few paintings of women looking out of windows at the vastness before them: are they merely observing the world around them, or wondering if there is more out there than this?
There’s a distance to Dickson’s work; establishment names are blurred or partially-blocked, signs in view are generic, blinking vague descriptors like “HOTEL.” We’re not always sure what we’re looking at, or where we are. We’re just passing through, having ‘seen’ things rather than actively ‘seeing’ them. The lack of clarity feels like the end of a raucous night out, when the evening has fizzled out and you end up alone and the details of everything are just a bit smudgy, your eyes are beginning to blur, and the walk home becomes more of a trudge. Women are painted performing in nondescript strip clubs and peep shows, bathed in consuming red light with their faces cropped out or blurred, a smoky look at an underworld that feels voyeuristic, anonymous, and stuck in time.
Sometimes things are clearer, such as her depictions of a commute by car on the Brooklyn Bridge or Lincoln Tunnel. However, inescapable is the sense of dreariness, emphasized by the gloomy blues and slightly-nauseating yellow hue of dim lights in a tunnel late at night; these paintings capture the feeling of driving in a car alone night after night, surrounded by people but not interacting with any of them.
There, on the back wall, presiding over all, is a massive circular painting of an eye, in deep blues and oranges. Perhaps it’s Dickson’s eye, perhaps an all-seeing eye, perhaps an eye that has ‘seen’ it all. What the answer is, we’re not really sure. But we’re going to keep looking.
Jane Dickson: Seen is on view until June 14 at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth Street. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 12-6pm or by appointment.