Portland Center Stage Young Americans Portland Oregon

More than a sum of parts

Sue Taylor reviews Rose Dickson's exhibition "Giantess" on view at Melanie Flood Projects through September 27th.



With remarkable ingenuity and endearing charm, Rose Dickson explores affairs of the heart. Her exhibition at Melanie Flood Projects, on view through September 27, reveals a gifted artist, creating watercolors, metals, ceramics, and wool rugs, all to draw us into her meditation on emotional connectedness. Dickson achieves this by means of a set of abstract symbols of her own devising; they repeat across her mediums in various combinations, like letters of a private alphabet. The cursive, symmetrical shapes stand in the artist’s mind for certain temperaments—or so we learn from an essay by artist Calum Walter that accompanies the show. He identifies two of the symbols as air and fire respectively, and we’re reminded of the ancient theory of humors associating mental and emotional dispositions with the four elements. Loops and hooks are characteristic features of Dickson’s graphic symbols; while the forms are individually unique, they are made to be linked together.

Rose Dickson, Ocean (2020). Hammered silver, 120 x 2 1/2 inches. Photo courtesy of Melanie Flood Projects.

Eight of the nineteen recent works on view are delicate chains of hammered silver, suspended from the gallery’s ten-foot ceiling and reaching to the floor. Each chain is composed of multiple iterations of one of Dickson’s symbolic forms, alternating right-side up, upside down, and so on, entwined in harmonious intricacy. A paper-clip chain is an apt but too crude comparison; Dickson’s chains are precious and beautiful, with evocative titles like The Kiss, A Balance of Power, or Vanity. Attempting visually and mentally to disentangle the basic unit from the whole, and to discern how the parts cohere, is a mesmerizing exercise. The structural principle may be simple, but the result appears complex, like the elaborate interlace in Celtic manuscript illuminations.

Rose Dickson, Seeing Eye to Eye (2019). Hand-hooked wool, 31 1/2 x 45 inches. Photo credit: Area Array

In the chain titled Ocean (perhaps to call up the rhythmic repetition of breaking waves), one may discover the curvilinear looping motif that reappears at a larger scale in the hand-hooked rug displayed on the floor in an adjacent room, Seeing Eye to Eye. Centered on the rug’s pale gray ground, the motif’s mirrored iterations, one red, one blue, interlock in pleasing unity. Conjured here through purely abstract form is that wonderfully agreeable feeling when two minds meet, or when similar personalities find themselves in sync. While pondering Dickson’s graceful emblem, I thought of Aristophanes’ theory of love in Plato’s Symposium, in which human beings are imagined as the severed halves of once whole, symmetrical organisms. Bifurcated by angry gods and thus piningly incomplete, when in life these beings locate their lost counterparts, they joyously reunite. Seeing Eye to Eye distills the spirit of this myth of romantic love in a heraldic symbol that could also represent friendship, brother- or sisterhood, collaboration, or like-minded solidarity.

The possibility that a conjoining of two might yield more than the sum of its parts underpins the design of Engine Room, a larger rug (nearly five feet long) mounted on the gallery wall. Here two side-by-side quatrefoils—they could be four-petalled flowers or four-bladed fans—are rendered in orange and green respectively, each decorated on three blades with its own set of Dickson’s graphic symbols. The fans’ respective fourth blades overlap at the center of the composition, forming a small pointed ellipse. This recombinant shape, picked out by Dickson in lavender and inscribed with a shared a symbol, suggests the miraculous potential we find in relationship with another, whether procreative, emotionally invigorating, or otherwise transformational. Partnership becomes a generative space, an “engine room” producing new power and energy otherwise unavailable to the individual alone.

Rose Dickson, Engine Room (2020). Hand-hooked and tufted wool, 42 1/2 x 57 1/2 inches. Photo credit: Area Array

That affectionate bonds of all sorts preoccupy this artist becomes apparent in several of her diminutive watercolor and gouache paintings. Seven are included in this exhibition; presented in shiny black glazed stoneware frames created by Dickson herself, they stand on wall-mounted shelves and demand close scrutiny. One of them, Almanac, contains a series of tiny vignettes within a grid formed by ten vertical rows of Dickson’s graphic symbol for fire traversed horizontally by hooked chains. The little scenes are captioned in the painting’s extra-long subtitle: conversations with my Aunt Elizabeth; my mom watching Mt. St. Helens erupt; The Burnside Bridge; some friends you have to leave; looking up; my house in Portland at nighttime; view from Alexander Studio; it was snowing. (The phrase “looking up” has no corresponding scene; perhaps it refers to optimism or respect or some other abstract quality represented by the solid orange-red areas of the grid.) Friends, family, landmarks, events, the natural world, all warm or trouble Dickson’s heart in this charming almanac of emotional weather. In one vignette, she depicts an open book to record those talks with her aunt, rendering the tenor if not the subject of each conversation by means of one of her signature graphic symbols inscribed on the book’s pages. The awful truth of her conclusion “some friends you have to leave” is conveyed by an image of a praying mantis: certain friends will love . . . then devour you. Dickson may be sentimental but is no Pollyanna about relationships. Some can injure or imprison you, just as her many-hooked grid in Almanac may begin to resemble a barbed-wire fence.

Rose Dickson, Almanac: conversations with my Aunt Elizabeth; my mom watching Mt. St. Helens erupt; The Burnside Bridge; some friends you have to leave; looking up; my house in Portland at nighttime; view from Alexander Studio; it was snowing (2020). watercolor and gouache on paper, wood, house paint, glazed stoneware. 9 x 11 1/2 inches. Photo credit: Area Array.

Silent Forces at Work depicts a house in flames. Inadvertently tragic today given the actual homes consumed by Oregon’s raging wildfires, the image is hard to contemplate in this particular moment without its literal dimension. If one’s mind could dwell in the realm of metaphor, it still might be possible to discover a moral about interpersonal relationships in the smoking conflagration Dickson envisions. An array of her cryptic symbols hovers in the sky above the burning home; they stand for different personality types, or different needs or moods, and signal how, however benign on their own, certain types become hotly combustible in contact with each other. Home and family offer the setting and the kindling for such explosive emotional catastrophes. 

Rose Dickson, Silent Forces at Work (2020). Watercolor and gouache on paper, wood, house paint, glazed stoneware. 11 x 9 x 1 1/2 inches. Photo credit: Area Array.

Thus the domestic subtext that runs through Dickson’s work—notable in her paintings of little houses or of interiors with chairs, drapes, or chandeliers, but also in the real rugs and candelabra on display in this exhibition, accoutrements for the home. A pair of ceramic candleholders with lighted beeswax tapers lends a votive aspect to the entire installation. Titled Bad Year and Good Year, the respective red and black ceramic candelabra, with their looping stems and hooked branches, translate Dickson’s graphic symbol for fire into three dimensions. It is a stunningly inspired elaboration of her graphic vocabulary, illuminating—for me at least—the burning brilliance of her art.

Rose Dickson, Bad Year (left) and Good Year (right) (2020). Glazed stoneware with hand-dipped beeswax candles. Each 9 1/2 x 5 x 5 inches. Photo credit: Area Array.

Dickson (b. 1989) is a native Portlander, which registers clearly in some of her work and will have special meaning for local audiences. The significance of the show’s title, however, “Giantess,” was lost on this viewer. Perhaps it describes the artist herself in outsized relation to the little doll-house worlds she presents in her pictures. Certainly her talent looms very large. Would it be impertinent, though, to propose an alternative title for an engaging body of work at once so intelligent and systematic yet so mysterious and deeply heartfelt? I respectfully submit to the artist for her consideration: “Rose Dickson’s Hieroglyphics of Love.”

Giantess is open through September 27th at Melanie Flood Projects by appointment only.

Sue Taylor received her BA in art history from Roosevelt University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Formerly critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, curator of prints and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University, she is a longtime corresponding editor from Portland for Art in America and professor emerita of art history at Portland State University. Her many publications include Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT) and the newly released Grant Wood’s Secrets (University of Delaware Press).

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