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"Red Toaster on the Radiator" by Rachel Dickinson.

These remain strange, constrained times for local gallery-goers, with few options for public viewing. Over in Cayuga Heights, big changes have been afoot at Corners Gallery, a pillar of the local visual arts scene. Rebranded last November as Corners Gallery & the living room, the business has added a design shop to its framing operation and program of formal exhibitions. Working with Rachel Philipson, a local photographer and graphic designer, owner Ariel Bullion Ecklund — herself an ambitious ceramic artist — clearly has as much as ever on her plate. It’s a busy operation, and it remains to be seen how things shake out for those of us interested in dedicated art shows. 

Last week, Ecklund hung “Dwelling,” a selection of small panel paintings by local nonfiction author Rachel Dickinson. Painted over the course of this past January, these miniature still lifes are very much the work of a beginning, self-taught artist: uneven and sometimes clumsy. And yet, her best pieces here have a real vitality and charm that portends well for her development. This is her first show of paintings at Corners and, to the best of my knowledge, in town. 

Hung in two Salon-style groupings toward the front of the gallery, Dickinson’s object-subjects range from the expected fruit and vessels to more quirky items. It is evidence of a domestic inwardness common to writers and painters alike. Often painted on a recurring bright red fabric — against a darker, crimson background — the effect is seemingly direct and unpretentious. 

The perfect square format appears to be an auspicious one for Dickinson. “Red Toaster on the Radiator,” the show’s standout piece, is a marvel of concision and focus. The toaster occupies nearly the exact center. Framed in black, the rounded red rectangle seems to pulse and glow like an old-fashioned television screen. Like a geometric abstraction by Josef Albers or Piet Mondrian, horizontal and vertical bands define a close-cropped, flat architectural space. Black-and-white, grays, and yellows create a kind of austere visual music that indicates willingness to depart from quotidian description. Only the beige columns of the radiator anchor us in three-dimensional space. 

A slightly larger square, “Broccoli and Onion on the Red Scarf,” is less daring but still striking. Against space-filling bands of crimson and red, the two vegetables take on the quality of dramatis personae. They lean, seemingly, away from each other: stage right and stage left, respectively. The brainy lobes of the broccoli and the smooth tawny globe of the onion have been painted in rich, emphatic brushstrokes that contrast with a thinner, more amorphous background. 

Dickinson is at her best here mostly in depicting simple, symmetrical forms from a head-on, frontal perspective — often against flattened, banded backdrops. The artist, unsurprisingly, is less confident in portraying more complex shapes and dimensional spaces. 

The intricate mechanical forms of “Binoculars on the Red Scarf” and “Eggbeater on the Red Scarf” lack the definition and detail that would give them a convincing realism or presence. Likewise, “Arrow Asleep on the Day Bed,” which portrays the artist’s dog (or so one presumes) resting in a corner space, seen from an odd angle. Only the bursts of bright color and rhythm of vertical and angled stripes seem to save it from a muddle.   

Still life and painterly realism can be easy to take for granted. Preferred modes for beginners and “Sunday painters,” they lack the prestige and glamour of other manners common to modern and contemporary art. It’s a prejudice that has been evident at Corners, despite Ecklund’s otherwise fairly catholic taste. It is encouraging that Dickinson cites the work of mid-century realist Fairfield Porter as a model. Porter, who raised scenes of ordinary middle class life into great exaltation, remains an important keystone. 

In addition to Dickinson’s panels and “the living room” shop, Corners is showing some work from last fall’s two-woman exhibition “Freedom in Constraint.” Featuring richly textural abstractions by local painters Domenica Brockman and Ileen Kaplan, the show is worth revisiting in its abbreviated presentation.  

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