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Talismans of Sky

by Michael Helsem

David Dreyer - Transit of Venus: Range on End, 2005
33 x 38 inches - oil and charcoal on canvas
images courtesy Valley House Gallery



Rilke’s “Beauty is nothing/ but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure...” is a felt truth, probably, only at such times when one walks some distance from the security of a car, stopped between places, and turns to face the Great American Desert alone.

That could well be the subject of all David Dreyer’s paintings at Valley House, through March 12— which surprised me; i went because the postcard revealed an acute color sense (as rare in abstract painters as a deft sense of line is in a figurist), and expected — oh, maybe warmed-over Diebenkorn.

The great 19c. Luminists left no heirs. You could say, however, that landscape painting did survive into the mid-20c. transmogrified in the musings of certain abstracter impressionists, from Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keefe to Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, late de Kooning, and above all Joan Mitchell.

(After that we stopped looking out of windows.) Landscape painting in the 21c. is so anachronistic as to carry the force for us that dressing up as milkmaids did for Marie Antoinette and her chums. It’s a joke, but a bleak one.


David Dreyer
Mountain Meets the Plains
, 2005
48 x 68 inches
oil and charcoal on canvas


Now Dreyer has fixated on a certain above-middle turquoise, and it is like a holy relic in a shrine. You have to respect that. Most of his marks — the half effaced vectors, retraced seams, and slightly textural blocks of solid color — function, but feel tired. Yet his composition and drawing bear an almost oriental tact (Sound of the Dunes — mostly turquoise and tan, a little black).

This is all the more compelling when, in Yellow Lace, a lime oblong perched on an ochre mesa, silhouetted against that ubiquitous turquoise, leaves just a whisper of blood red left where the terror has not yet been completely obliviated.


David Dreyer
, 2002-3
21 x 18 inches,
oil and charcoal on canvas


At other times (his 3D experiments, his dubious forays into royal blue, or particular pictures that suffer from an overdose of Still (Arches), Miro, impasto (Green), or Motherwell (Mountain Meets the Plains) even expert draughtsmanship doesn’t help.

The gloomiest and most powerful of all, may be a picture i’m still not sure about: Transit of Venus (above). It’s queasy and melodramatic, but its rusts haunt me — and the turquoise there is screaming for its life.

February 7

Read more Michael Helsem reviews.


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