V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





While savoring the sound of the title in his mind,
the viewer sees the dunes in Dudley's painting
standing beside the unseen lake, impressing
with their mass but also threatening to disappear
at any moment like a ghost composed
of a material both substantial and insubstantial.

Shadows and Sunlit Silence, an undated oil painting by Frank V. Dudley (1868-1957), is one of the Brauer Museum of Art's most beloved paintings.  A 1960 gift of The Friends of Our Native Landscape in memory of Frank V. Dudley, this sensitive representation of the Indiana dunes located just north of Valparaiso and the Brauer Museum reminds viewers of the lovely landscape features that can be seen in this area.  Dudley's selection of lavender shadows for his subject matter allows viewers to see the painting abstractly; at the same time, however, the piece reflects the Impressionist style of representation for which he is known.
    Born in Wisconsin and a long-time Chicago resident, Dudley discovered during his adult travels the magical landscape of the Indiana dunes, a place that inspired him to visit and paint for the rest of his career, and that led him to work to have this landscape preserved through state and national parks.  His dunes paintings capture in subtle pastel tones the quiet grandeur that one often feels in this setting.  Lake Michigan, stretching into the distance of so many Dudley pieces, looks and feels like a vast ocean, while the various grasses and trees set in the expanses of sand proclaim their existence in realms of light and color.
    The title Shadows and Sunlit Silence offers an example of alliteration that enhances an appreciation for the picture.  The "sh" and "s" sounds summon up images within one's imagination of shifting sands and rustling grasses.  Complete and absolute silence is difficult to find in nature due to the myriad activities taking place within this arena; one must therefore think of silence as paradoxically taking on various characters in various contexts or environments.  Staring at the dunes in the summer sunlight, one may concentrate on the silence to isolate and characterize the delicate sounds that weave together as a texture or pattern or that occasionally puncture the continuity of such a pattern.  So often the rushing lake currents, the sand particles shifting in the breeze, the leaves of trees and grasses all blend together into something not quite a sound, not quite a feeling.  This particular silence is the reassuring voice of a place that comforts with the enormity of its workings, a voice that lies below one's awareness like a continuous whisper.  While savoring the sound of the title in his mind, the viewer sees the dunes in Dudley's painting standing beside the unseen lake, impressing with their mass but also threatening to disappear at any moment like a ghost composed of a material both substantial and insubstantial.  The dunes sand Dudley offers the viewer in this picture is the sand seen in an hourglass.  That is, the mound at the bottom of the hourglass presents stability and weight, but a flip of the hourglass reminds one of the fine particles that compose the mound and that are always and forever moving, taking new shapes regardless of humans that wish to stay their movement and thus gain control over the relentless progress of time.  The rushing silence of the dunes rhymes with the sound of flowing blood occasionally heard ever so quietly in one's ears, both natural currents that serve simultaneously as indicators of stability and constant change.
    In the foreground of Dudley's painting are gestural marks that stand for blades of grass, twigs, perhaps small shadows produced by footsteps or the wind.  Dudley painted many of his dunes landscapes on the beach before the scene or feature itself and therefore was frequently immersed in the environment that fascinated him.  His casually or spontaneously applied marks are in keeping with the modernist sensibility that characterized most twentieth century art, but the abstract beauty of the artistic gesture is perhaps only part of these marks' appeal.  Because he responded so strongly to the dunes and quickly felt an almost spiritual attachment to the place, his mark-making methods in certain areas may have been a result of imitations of natural processes. In other words, like the wind can reach down, grab a twig, and deposit it several feet away, so too could Dudley as an all-powerful creator touch his brush upon the canvas and move his arm quickly, thus placing a mark upon the beige ground where one could not previously be found.  While Dudley as a skilled artist was in careful control of his composition at all times, one could delight in thinking that maybe he occasionally felt as if he were not only transcribing what lay before him but also being driven by or mimicking through the creative process the forces of nature that sculpted the wonders on whatever scale before his eyes.
    The purples in Dudley's shadows are not colors one would expect to see in the sands.  Likewise, visitors to the dunes do not typically frame their views of the landscape in such a square format or abstracted and edited fashion.  The colors, pictorial configuration in terms of outer and inner aspects, and representational approach are all decisions on the artist's part; consequently, in appreciating this work of art viewers are wise to consider all elements as being purposeful and having some bearing on the content of the picture.  When one thinks about Dudley's love for the dunes landscape as well as his successful efforts to have this environment preserved for future generations, he cannot help but think that each painting was an invitation, an urge for the viewer to see.  Certainly, the dunes provided Dudley with ample opportunities for abstraction, for finding arrangements that could be interesting on a two-dimensional surface within a frame.  However, Dudley's vignettes, his carefully chosen extractions from the larger world seem more to be prompts to awaken the viewer.  Imagine seeing Dudley's purple shadows and then discovering in the dunes that yes, the shadows do contain such colors or at least display more complexity than one ever realized.  His art invites one to participate in an adventure in seeing (and hearing and feeling) in the context of a landscape that both embodies time and exists outside of it.

    A retrospective exhibition of Dudley's work will be on display at the Brauer Museum from August 15 to November 30 of 2006.  This major show of many of Dudley's finest creations (which will include Shadows and Sunlit Silence) will be accompanied by a catalogue published by University of Illinois Press and intended to be the definitive publication on the artist.  Essays by esteemed scholars James Dabbert, William Gerdts, Wendy Greenhouse, and J. Ronald and Joan Engel will illuminate the life and legacy of this legendary figure in American art history.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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