Third Street Gallery,
Edward Sozanski, Philadelphia Inquirer
Although Philadelphia abounds in industrial vista, especially along the Delaware River, local landscape painters tend to favor pastoral subjects. Not so Jeff Dion. Like the German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, known for their images of water towers and mine tipples, Dion finds industrial structures powerful and aesthetically pleasing.
His exhibition of oils and watercolors at Third Street Gallery celebrates some of the most imposing such structures along the city's waterfront, such as the huge cranes south of the Walt Whitman Bridge used to unload bulk cargo from ships.
Dion paints them as he might paint the portrait of an important industrialist, frontally and in a scale that conveys what mighty forces they are. The images are painterly variations on a photo aesthetic, not precisely detailed, but sufficiently expressive to convey structural and mechanical complexity and the ability to do massive amounts of heavy work.
Dion doesn't romanticize these structures in his larger paintings (he does a bit in the smaller ones) because he evidently realizes that embellishment isn't necessary. Industrial power on a monumental scale conveys intrinsic majesty, which Dion has captured.
The large oils are the most impressive
because they isolate the cranes in all their glory. The smaller works
place them in a broader landscape context, sometimes from across the
river. They're more anecdotal and even dare we say it, charming.
Susan Hagen, Philadelphia City Paper
Through Oct. 28, Third Street Gallery, 58 N. Second St., 215-625-0993.
In his third solo exhibition at Third Street Gallery, Philadelphia artist Jeff Dion has taken his trademark industrial landscape paintings in an unexpected new direction. Much of his past work involved the use of the abandoned Bureau Brothers’ Foundry built in 1906 in North Philadelphia. In 1996 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the building, and he then went on to paint interior views for several years. In his new work, funded by a grant from the Independence Foundation Fellowships in the Arts, Dion has continued to work with the foundry, now including a single nude figure in each painting.
Dion developed the seven large paintings on display by first painting a series of small studies (eight are included in the show) of nude male and female models during the cold months of last year — in the unheated building. Later he worked on the large oil-on-canvas paintings in the comfort of his studio, returning to the site as necessary. All of this bare exposed skin on cold tabletops and concrete floors is bound to induce discomfort in an empathetic viewer. The coldness also seems to have compressed the models’ poses, making them appear passive or frozen. Of the emotional content in the paintings, Dion explains, "I love the space in the foundry and was inspired by the beautiful light reaching down from heaven to illuminate the figures and debris, then I started to think about longing, grief and hope."
Strength and Grief (44 inches by 60 inches), titled after a shiva prayer, shows a frontal view of a female model sitting on a chair. Her body is pitched forward and her head rests between her knees. The woman’s hair has a part down the middle, and her brown braids are mussed. Her hands, graceful and beautifully painted, rest loosely on her shoulder and knee. Her toes, on the other hand, are oddly bulbous and seem more exposed and vulnerable. In the background, there’s a red brick wall with a row of windows across the top that shed a cold blue-gray light. In spite of this, the light that reflects off the figure’s back has a deliciously warm glow to it: yellow, cream and a little pink.
Monument #2 (39 inches by 86 inches) is dark and seductive, with a more pronounced chiaroscuro. A standing man, shown from a front view in a murky, indistinct interior, has yellow-brown skin that is slashed with brushstrokes with bright highlights. His bald head is downcast as if in meditation and his arms hang heavily at his sides. Underscoring the stillness and quiet of the foundry, Dreaming of Elijah (51 inches by 88 inches) gives a larger frame of reference for a small slumped-over female figure. Behind her there’s a wonderful melee of crisscrossed pallets, and above there’s an enormous window with metal lights, each framing a unique square of pinkish-gray light. The pallets and other odd industrial objects are splashed with brushy bits of orange light, while the woman’s loose strands of hair are made up of little articulated bits of light that glow like precious metals.
Dion’s small painted studies seem to embody even more the fleeting spirituality in this convergence of nude, light and industrial interior. Loosely rendered in wet brushstrokes, Study for Monument #2 (6 inches by 15 inches) shows a very dark (chocolate-y brown and black) scene of a man looking downward at his torso, which has been etched with a zigzag sliver of light from a nearby window. Study for #1 (Monument) (6 inches by 15 inches), juxtaposes a svelte female model with a dark interior and one tiny window. She turns away, lifting one knee and extending her arm. The moment is captured in paint just as vertical stripes of light line the pinkish-brown flesh of her thigh and arm. At their best, Dion’s fresh and heartfelt studies, as well as many of his other paintings, are melancholic icons to post-industrial America. It will be interesting to see where he takes his work next.
FIGURES IN THE FOUNDRY: PAINTINGS
Victoria Donohue, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2002