A mosaic of revelers—one of 68 by Jane Dickson, all underground.
Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
What Monet was to haystacks and Jeff Koons to balloon animals, Jane Dickson may well be to America’s interstates—those vast, arid, indistinguishable stretches of highway and what passes for scenery along them: overpasses, power lines and the taillights of the cars in front of you forming a necklace that at times seems to go on forever.
“I’m interested in zeroing in on cultural pivot points, things we have to all make our own calls on, things like the highway,” Ms. Dickson explained when I visited her TriBeCa loft a couple of weeks ago. “It was sold to us as the dream of freedom. But if you’re stuck in traffic, it’s a prison.”
Ms. Dickson in her TriBeCa loft, where her ‘God Truck’ painting hangs. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
Several of her highway paintings are on display through the end of the year at Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, N.Y. I can’t fathom a lot of contemporary art, but these images share something with Impressionism. It’s not that all of Ms. Dickson’s work is lovely—she did a gritty series on Times Square strip clubs; and on the staircase of her loft, there’s a painting of cops running down the middle of the street, silhouetted in car headlights, as they respond to a crime in progress.
But as with great landscape painting, part of what makes her work succeed is that it captures a psychological mood that you not only recognize, but that you recognize as your own, and whose peculiar qualities of light and composition trigger something deeply personal.
“Almost all the highways are heading up,” Ms. Dickson noted. “I didn’t do this consciously at first. I prefer a rise, where you have a highway to heaven. The ones where you can see the valley below and you know where you’re going, I haven’t explored that yet.”
And the highway paintings are done on AstroTurf, the material lending a dream-like quality. Which is as it should be, since it evokes something along the fringes of driving—that lulling, almost trance-like state.
“I like what it does texturally,” she explained. “I’m interested in contradictions. The highway is the least dreamy place you can think of. And yet it’s a place of reverie inside your car.”
The highway paintings are of relatively recent vintage. In the ’80s, when she and her husband, Charlie Ahearn, an artist and film director, were living in Times Square, that’s what she painted. Her images, such as one that incorporates the neighborhood’s ubiquitous XXX-rated movie houses, capture that era’s seedy, menacing majesty.
“It was the ‘Taxi Driver’ era,” Ms. Dickson said, remembering the time her husband got mugged in their building’s elevator. “When he came to, he had purple fingerprints on his neck. It was sort of exciting to be playing among the ruins, but it was really dangerous.”
The artist has played a role in Times Square’s revival. While working as an ad designer in the ’80s for Spectacolor, the company that ran the 1 Times Square billboard, she was instrumental in mounting “Messages to the Public,” a Public Art Fund show of noncommercial art specifically created for the billboard. It ran from 1982 to 1990 and the participants included Kiki Smith, Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer.
Ms. Holzer’s messages—among them, “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid” and “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”—surely provoked head scratching among tourists and the area’s colorful denizens.
“That was her introduction to LED lights,” Mr. Dickson said of Jenny Holzer. “She was doing posters and paper cups at the time.”
The Times Square Alliance is planning to revive part of the show in November 2014.
Ms. Dickson is also responsible for the 68 mosaics of New Year’s Eve revelers that populate the underpass that links the Port Authority 42nd Street and Times Square subway stations. “It’s uncharacteristically cheerful for me,” she acknowledged. “But it’s hard enough to do that commute from New Jersey every day. When they selected me, they said, ‘We love your work, but please don’t do strippers or scary things.”
Her work seems to tread similar territory to Edward Hopper’s—the melancholy and alienation that runs alongside the American Dream.
Her achievement is that she often needs little more than cars or taillights to accomplish the mood. One of the most evocative images at the Omi International show is “Red Taillights in Snow.” It simultaneously captures the otherworldly beauty of driving through a snowstorm and the fear that you might skid out of control at any moment.
“It’s a memory of a really snowy Thanksgiving,” Ms. Dickson explained. “It was I-84. We ended up finally having to find a motel.”
She also did a series of bridges and tunnels. The subject of one of them, which hangs in her studio, is the Brooklyn Bridge, with its unmistakable pointed arches. But what’s equally familiar is the cars traveling beside you in the dusk and the sense that you’re suspended in a sort of limbo.
Another painting captures the Lincoln Tunnel, and its attendant claustrophobia; you feel as if you’re holding your breath, and not just against the fumes of the tractor-trailers lumbering ahead of you.
“I did a whole series of bridges and tunnels after 9/11,” Ms. Dickson said. “They’re both incredible feats of engineering and they’re also our maximum vulnerability.”
“I use paintings to deal with things I’m afraid of,” she said.