Jane Dickson
Promised Land
September 9–October 28, 2023
Opening reception: Saturday, September 9, 6–8 pm

Karma, New York
188 & 172 East 2nd Street
New York, NY, 10009

Karma presents Promised Land, an exhibition of new paintings and drawings by Jane Dickson, open from September 9 to October 28 at 188 and 172 East 2nd Street, New York. Dickson’s first show with the gallery, Promised Land features works focused on text and signage.

Dickson’s engagement with signage dates to the beginning of her artistic career in New York: Between 1978 and 1983, she designed and animated Times Square’s first digital billboard, the Spectacolor, while also living in the then-gritty neighborhood. Looking down from the window of her apartment or from the third floor of One Times Square, where she programmed the billboard, Dickson photographed the bustling intersection below, using the images as source material for paintings. In the forty-five years since, she has continued to paint from her photographs of street scenes, demolition derbies, strip clubs, circuses, suburban homes, and other charged social environments taken in cities across America. Recently, Dickson returned to this archival cache of negatives. Lightening under-exposed images, she pulled previously hidden imagery from their darkened recesses, seeing her past anew.

In Promised Land, Dickson reappropriated, re-edited, and reframed her photographs as paintings and drawings. These resulting works hone in on what signs reveal about the collective subconscious; in her words, text in the urban landscape reflects “what Americans are thinking, what we want and why we want it.” These translations of her anthropological photographs are both strongly graphic and dreamily diffuse. Her use of a variety of materials and surfaces, including but not limited to oil stick, acrylic, linen, and colored felt, lends each work a uniquely textured surface on which substrate and pigment collapse traditional notions of figure and ground. 

Bargain (2023), a ten-foot-long composition in acrylic on felt, distills the false promise of capitalism into a single word and three primary colors. Triangular bunting, a familiar sight in car dealerships, swags off of the top of the sign and casts a shadow across its letters; the interaction between the acrylic paint and the wooly, fibrous background lends the forms an unstable vibration, as if emerging from the haze of memory. The titular neon sign in Save Time 2 (2022), an oil stick on linen depiction of a laundromat, posits time as a rare commodity. Through the phenomenon of optical color mixing, the artist’s monochromatic oil sticks create a range of fluorescent green and turquoise tones that offset the glowing orange lettering, contributing to an abiding atmosphere of alienation. Meanwhile, Dickson’s nocturnal paintings on black grounds represent figures as at once swallowed up by darkness and drenched in the blinding lights of marquees and advertisements, deindividuated by the city’s plentiful offerings of entertainment, nourishment, and comfort. 

As Chris Kraus wrote twenty years ago, Dickson’s “eye is never very far removed from the tenuously middle-class state of echt-America where most people live two paychecks away from disaster.” Promised Land (2023), the exhibition’s namesake painting in acrylic on felt, features a sign advertising quick payouts but leaves open the question of what exactly is being bought and sold. Dickson’s new depictions of our cultural sigils suggest that all American promises have an unavoidable, often invisible psychic price.