Counterpoint of Defiance and Softness

DRAWING herself from the back, Scottish artist Dorothy Black uses a precarious arrangement: a mirror on an easel, another behind her. She sometimes uses others as models (generally women), but either way there remains in the final works developed from her studies, some element of self-portraiture. She often leaves out features people take as signs of character or expression - but still produces figures full of both. Hands, however, she can and does use. But she shows it isn't necessary ``to see the face.'' Maybe ``just the angle of a shoulder or a hip says different things.... I felt that sometimes eyes and nose and mouth say too much.'' Black likes a certain anonymity, a hinting, a mystery, something ``left to the memory.''

Rear or three-quarter views can disclose ``a very tender back of the neck - vulnerable.'' Other figures are ``more aggressive, with very square backs.'' In fact, it is the counterpoint of ``defiance and softness'' that engages her. She also brings into contrast twisting motion and a set solidity of pose. In this respect, her interest in some Italian Renaissance art - Botticelli particularly - is telling.

Black's draftsmanship is crucial. Unashamedly a linear artist, charcoal and chalk forming the underlying structure of her works on paper, she comments: ``I'm not a painter. I can't handle oil paint.'' But it would be wrong to conclude that her large images are simply drawings: All sorts of mixed media, varnishes added to chalk and wax crayon, build surfaces and textures. She certainly does use paint and brushes. But the painterly remains secondary to the strength of her line.

So, in a way, does the decorative aspect. It is, rather literally, like a dress clothing the figure. There's even a flowered dress pinned to Black's Edinburgh studio wall - her ``icon.'' Patterning (sometimes flowers and Cretan symbols, but frequently, seafood and sea creatures) brings another quality to her work. One writer is tempted to call it ``surrealism.'' Crab claws, crayfish, starfish, and shells are a continuing fascination. She likes its strange duality: ``nice color'' but ``slimy and smelly.'' There's a touch of menace, too.

It should hardly be surprising that when recently she came across the curious paintings of heads composed of roots, vegetables, fruit, and fish, by the 16th-century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, she felt a rapport.

This series showcases artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures art in motion before labels are applied.

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