On ViewThe Drawing Room
January 15 – February 27, 2022
Snow days are coveted by those who tire of winter gray, bringing the excitement of flurries and the stillness of bright snow banks to an otherwise bleak landscape. The ten artists exhibited in Snow Day, the Drawing Room’s latest exhibition, tap into this attraction. Snow as a subject goes to the heart of something in all works of art: the attempt to capture something fleeting.
In Lois Dodd’s painting, Sunlight on House (1982), a winter sun lowers behind violet woods, casting a patch of dwindling light across an icy field, clipping the side of a house. The beauty of Dodd’s painting is found not only in how she captures a moment frozen in time, but the ease with which she does so. Dodd paints her snow in thin, broad planes. She punctuates these fields of off-white with brushstrokes alla prima, all the while balancing spontaneity with restraint. Her brushwork has a relaxed confidence—unfussy and deliberate without an ounce of ego. It is worth visiting the exhibition for this painting alone.
Where Dodd’s painting is sheer and speedy, Fairfield Porter’s Winter Landscape (Snow) (1958–61) is thick and lumbering. The painting depicts a lively view near the artist’s home in Southampton, and looks as wet as it was on the day it was painted. This is not the crisp silence of Dodd’s acoustic landscape, but a slippery romp through snow's heavy mass. The eye gets caught in a mesh of sticky branches, beefy sky, and syrupy snow which appears to ooze over the trees. The painting is a delicious, semiotic slurry, confusing boundaries between nameable things.
Charles Burchfield’s watercolor Snow Scene with Black Tree (1916), demonstrates the connection between snow and the blank page. Compelling watercolors are sensitive to the paper’s natural light, framing its untouched surface with surrounding strokes and stains. Burchfield’s snow is not painted but rather articulated by neighboring forms, brought forward by his acute sense of what to include and omit. At center-left is the painting’s maestro: a springy tree, shaped like a claw, twisting the surrounding world into a small storm. It reminds me of when a sudden gust of wind sets a landscape into motion, if only for a few seconds.
While other artists in the show pick up on the kinetic energy of winter, Jane Freilicher’s paintings dare to address its slower pace. Painted from her Watermill studio, Snowfall Study (1999) and Snow Day (2001) are deeply contemplative, the result of closely observing a place over time. Freilicher feathers in her snow, picking up on subtle tones and hues to create a subdued atmosphere. Like tectonic plates, her masses shift and slide until one layer breaches the next, releasing tiny pockets of pressure. A bare shrub rises to puncture the marsh. A huddle of bushes crowds the horizon. These ruptures guide our eye not to a hard boundary, but to a moment of slippage between parts.
In an exhibition of mostly paintings, Wilson A. Bentley’s photographs introduce an unexpected dimension. The first person to photograph snowflakes in 1885, Bentley wanted to capture them in their most pristine form. After carefully photographing his delicate subject, he would scrape into his negatives to create a rich black background, even shaping the crystals themselves. With this in mind, Bentley's photographs become less about the structure of a snowflake and more about the desire of a photographer to render the world a certain way. One photograph caught my attention in particular. Unlike the other more cogent works, a photomicrograph form 1900 looked pieced together, bearing the scars of its construction. This collaged photo reveals the failure of the image to coalesce, and with it comes a surprising vulnerability from an artist fixated on an ideal.
I left the exhibition thinking of Robert Frost’s iconic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923). The poem tells the story of a man transfixed by the winter woods, who stops to admire nature’s beauty despite the waning daylight. It is a reflection on what it means to be drawn to something indistinct and distant, despite our limited time and many responsibilities. The artists in “Snow Day” are pulled by the same enigmatic force, combining their desire to be immersed in the landscape with the necessity of keeping a distance in order to make an image with the limited time they have.
The reality outside the Drawing Room is that sustained snowy winters are rarer than ever. Record snowfall is followed by balmy temperatures, quickly melting away the blankets of snow that once defined our winter months. How long before the works in “Snow Day” become relics of a distant past when New England enjoyed regular snowfall? Perhaps the winters we’ve come to know are as transient as the snow they bring.