Abigail Dudley’s Paintings of the Observed and Imagined

Abigail Dudley is an observational painter who can translate her subject matter into a synthesis of the seen and the imagined without faltering. This combination, along with her artistic chops, sets her apart from other observational painters, particularly from older generations. What makes this accomplishment all the more remarkable is that she is not yet 30 years old. I was first taken by Dudley’s work in the 2023 Young Painters Competition hosted by Miami University, for which I was the only juror. A few months later, I included her work in a group exhibition, Whats New in Still-life, Portraiture, and Landscape at Laisun Keane gallery in Boston. The 11 paintings in the exhibition Abigail Dudley: In Sight at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects should convince anyone who cares about painting to look at her work, return to it, and look again. 

Dudley’s focus in this show is the figure sitting or standing in a room that often includes fantastical elements. In “Emmanuel” (2023–24), a barefoot Black man in casual dress, pictured nearly in profile, sits in a chair with his hands clasped on his lap and his eyes closed. Behind him is a textured field of yellowish-to-gray paint that suggests a desert, with a small full moon at the top edge. Is the man dreaming this? What held my attention was the juxtaposition of the observed and invented. There is no single interpretation, which encourages the viewer to closely examine the painting’s surface. The shift from the figure’s solidity of color to the ambiguous landscape and granularity of what looks like sand underscores the artist’s mastery of paint. She doesn’t impose a style on her subject, but lets the painting take her into fresh territory. 

Dudley’s approach to the fantasy aspect of her imagery has not calcified, making everything in her art feel discovered. In “Heart to Heart” (2024), a seated couple face each other in a layered, ambiguous space. The man sits in the corner of what appears to be a blue modernist couch. Two vases near him could be resting on the couch or floating in space. Both readings feel odd. A semitransparent, largely mauve woman occupies far more space than him. A cocktail shaker and empty glass that are continuous with the vases seem to hover on her right leg.

So many questions arise while looking at this painting, which shares something with “The Conversation” (1908–12) by Henri Matisse. The woman’s legs pass through the blue oblong rectangle that includes the couch, man, and coffee table. What might this signify? Following the lead of the title, what is the nature of their heart to heart? The dreamlike character makes the work open ended. Although there is no definitive reading, it conveys the complexity of human relationships, and the awareness that something might always remain hidden. 

“Artist at Night” (2023–24) is the most riveting and disquieting work in this powerful, challenging exhibition. A seated, barefoot brown-skinned woman looks at a pair of scissors dangling from the finger of her right hand. Eight metal pushpins lie on the floor below. The scumbled paint behind the woman evokes worn walls and contributes to the work’s atmospheric character. In a move that seems bold and unexpected, Dudley has coated the woman’s face with a sheen of dark green. Is it a mudpack? This viewer, at least, could not be sure. Within the painting’s narrow vertical format, the imagery is both comprehensible, since we can recognize the figure, scissors, and pushpins, and completely resistant to explanation. I can think no other painter, particularly one at such an early career stage, who can pull the viewer into a space where clarity and puzzlement cannot be separated. 

Nothing in this exhibition seems contrived or forced. Dudley is able to combine different states of reality and imagination in the same work seemingly without effort. She is an artist who loves to paint and believes it will take her to unknown places. The evidence in this exhibition tells us that she is not wrong. 

Abigail Dudley: In Sight continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 12. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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