Charlottesville, VA., Jennifer Ditacchio
by P
aul Ryan




1999, oil on wood, 80"x 108"

Employing abstract elements of the landscape and images of architectural fragments, the new paintings of Jennifer Ditacchio (Second Street Gallery, June 4-July 18) seek a poetics of transition. Passages such as windows and spaces between buildings reveal views of open fields or vast sea and sky, and this dual imagery serves as metaphor for a psychological state of desire and spiritual possibility-in particular, an aspect of consciousness that wavers between two thoughts or courses of action at a philosophical level. Ditacchio’s intentions are ambitious and sincere, and, although the results of the six large-scale paintings in the exhibition are uneven, the viewer is left with a clear sense that this young painter has the potential to become a strong presence in contemporary painting.
The strength of Ditacchio’s paintings is her brushwork- a "technical" aspect of painting ultimately linked more to the intellect and emotions than to the hand, and one that has been overshadowed in the last 20 years by various conceptual strategies such as postmodern quotation and the inclusion of text. Inherent within her brushwork alone-it’s simultaneous speed and control, and Ditacchio’s innate understanding of paint thickness/thinness and the painted edge-is both an amplitude of formal issues and multiple veins of content. This is most evident in two paintings, Field and Across,where the representational imagery connected to Ditacchio’s conceptual intentions is less specific, thereby allowing greater formal emphasis, manipulation, and play. In Across, an elegant triptych of three adjacent wooden panels, each 80 inches in height and 36 inches wide, the artist’s central theme of obstruction or restriction vs. transition and (forward) movement is resident; yet, it coincides with and mutually supports the establishment of formal issues such as the opacity/transparency of painted surfaces, the visual syncopation of the literal edges of the three panels vs. the purposely misaligned painted edges, and the painting’s relationship to the wall. As a result, a deeper sense of visual and personal discovery is possible for the viewer, and this activity parallels or even conjoins Ditacchio’s interest in the concept of philosophical and psychological searching.
In Field, a large diptych of two equally-sized wooden panels, the abstracted landscape occupies the entire composition, and rather than restricted by architectural fragments, a sense of interruption is achieved by the four outer edges of the painting and the inner edge where the two panels meet. Essentially a field painting consisting of a sheaf of horizontal speed strokes that extend the width of the painting, all layered from the top to the bottom of the composition, Field is the least complicated yet the smartest, most difficult and most daring work in the exhibition. This is so because it relies exclusively on painting issues rather than on what is sometimes an unsuccessful construction of representational imagery and semi-narrative in Ditacchio’s work; yet, and perhaps importantly, it remains tied to her personal conceptualizations. Within this painting are more than enough formal issues, as well as context-related ones, to sustain a substantial and extensive body of work: issues of direction, paint application, receding vs. advancing space, edge, pace, scale, and cool and warm color contrasts-all of which may be tied to content through the intellect of the eye.
The primary reason for the unevenness of the show resides in two paintings, Through and Veil. Painted on three wooden panels (the middle panel slightly narrower than the others), Through consists of a central landscape image that is highly abstracted as a tower of muted blue and blue-green stripes. This passage of receding space is flanked by two panels that are stylized depictions of portions of red brick edifices or, perhaps, walls, cast in a dark, modulated light. Veil is a cropped interior view of an open window, and the landscape that stretches beyond it is obscured by the image of a shear curtain blown by the wind. The slight diagonal folds of the curtain intersect the horizontal bands of sky, clouds, sea, and alternating dunes and shadows to form a soft grid across the painting’s surface. The greater specificity of representational form (and place) within these two pieces is not a detriment in and of itself; but, a lack of pictorial invention places undue emphasis on Ditacchio’s format-her means for suggesting the concepts of restriction and passage-and as a result, this work seems formulaic and perhaps even academic. There simply is little evoked beyond what the viewer sees, and unfortunately, this tends to trivialize the concepts of searching, journey, and transition that clearly have great significance for the artist.
Understanding and mining the successes within Field and Across, Ditacchio, who received an MFA in painting from Yale in 1997 where she was awarded the Blair Dickinson Memorial Prize, could choose a passageway that leads to a more difficult aesthetic and perhaps a smaller audience, but also one that invariably means a more satisfying journey-and possibly entrance into a landscape that includes the poetry of painters such as Mary Heilman and Robert Mangold, as well as the more theory-based territory of Robert Ryman and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe.