The title “Catching the Light” is appropriate for the new Lois Dodd career retrospective currently on display at the Portland Museum of Art. The painter — who for most of her life has split her time between New York City, rural New Jersey and midcoast Maine — has a way with light, be it brilliant sunshine, flickering fire or soft moonlight.
Dodd is one of several painters, including her colleagues Alex Katz and Neil Welliver, who relocated from New York to coastal Maine in the 1950s. She also was one of the co-founders of the Tanager Gallery in Manhattan, one of several artist-run galleries in the the city’s Lower East Side that presented an alternative to the exclusive contemporary art world of the time. Dodd’s work didn’t quite fit in with any of the American art trends of the time; where others experimented with abstraction, she stuck with her colorful visions of everyday landscapes and scenes, both urban and rural.
To this day, her paintings retain a certain iconoclastic look and feel — one seems to see exactly what Dodd sees in her immediate surroundings. She is known for her plein air paintings, though where other plein air painters maintain a stricter realism, Dodd’s paintings have a bold, joyful kind of impressionistic spirit, bringing to mind a more pastoral Matisse, or, at times, the poetry of Walt Whitman, in its unabashed celebration of the beauty of the commonplace.
There are repeated explorations of specific scenes at different times of day and in different seasons, from a number of paintings of a men’s shelter outside her Lower East Side apartment, to variations on a theme of windows through which different landscapes are viewed. Scenes of plain clapboard houses in Maine, be they on a sunny day, in stark night or, in one instance, on fire, are balanced by a handful of self-portraits in which the artist may appear in full, in part or in shadow.
Though it is landscape and plein air paintings that dominate much of what is displayed in “Catching the Light,” there are other works that give a much fuller picture of the visual world Dodd inhabits. In particular, a series of paintings of flowers are a joy, ranging from humble cow parsnip to flashy gladiolus. They are hung across the gallery from several paintings of nudes that are charming in their unpretentious, bluntly realistic style. The exhibition’s focal point is the 14-foot-tall “Woods (Triptych),” a narrow vision of a house in the woods, in which the house takes up the lower third, and the trees and sky take up the upper two-thirds.
“Catching the Light” will be on display at the PMA through April 7; the exhibition’s 51 works range in date from 1955’s “Pasture” to 2010’s self-portrait “Shadow with Easel.” It’s Dodd’s first career retrospective.
The Portland Museum of Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays; it is closed on Mondays. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students and $6 for youth 13-17; 12 and under are free.