In the 1995 movie Smoke Harvey Keitel, a Brooklyn tobacco shop owner and serial photographer, explains why he shoots the same picture from the same spot at the same time, everyday: “They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one. You’ve got your bright mornings and your dark mornings. You’ve got your summer light and your autumn light… It’s just one little part of the world. But things happen there…”
Fred Dalkey’s The Church Series operates on roughly the same principle. It features 54 paintings of a pair of Chinese pots, completed on successive days over a six-month period in 2004. Assembled chronologically in the main gallery, the array of modestly scaled but luminous paintings gives physical form to time spent in limbo, when Dalkey, displaced from his studio, worked in an empty church that his dealer, the late Paul Thiebaud, had put up for sale. Unsure when he might be forced to leave, Dalkey undertook no large projects but focused instead on the table by a window on which two pots, one somewhat larger than its mate, embodied stability. Subject to arbitrary fate, yet reasonably secure from one day to the next, Dalkey affirmed his connection to the visual world in daily paintings of these objects – each rendered from the same vantage point. Numbered and labeled, they document the passage of time, while their mutating forms suggest a series of internal narratives, each a concentrated fragment of human cognition.
White and empty, the church interior imposed a monastic austerity; even the windows were covered with frosted plastic. What’s more, by placing himself against the light, Dalkey set himself the additional challenge of eliciting colors from shadows. As it often did for Matisse and Bonnard, however, this sensory deprivation generated an intensified experience of saturated hues. If painting Number 1 is relatively somber, by Number 2, Dalkey is engaged with acid greens and vivid reds. These variations in color orchestration sometimes create dramatic contrasts from one painting to the next, suggesting the artist’s shifting moods.
Such orchestration extends from the objects to the wall behind them, in subliminal landscapes that evoke the trees and changing seasons outside. The atmosphere itself becomes tangible, suggesting the overall space of the high-ceilinged room.
In this highly existential, Morandi-like exploration of a repeated theme, Dalkey shifts the focus away from the subject to the act of seeing. Thus, the paintings become physical evidence of an acutely observed interchange: between the raw sensations of the optical nerve and the uncertain mechanism by which the brain translates those sensations into recognizable forms.
“If the paintings seem to us to be exercises of emotional expression, it may be that emotions can literally affect the way we see, writes Chris Daubert in an essay accompanying the show. “The power of these paintings goes beyond the fact that they are an artist’s attempt to capture an almost impossibly fleeting occurrence. They are able to elicit emotion through the resonance of shared experience. They may feel familiar because at one level we all live in the same visual world.”
Fred Dalkey The Church Series @ Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento through October 23, 2010.