John Miller > Article: Paradise Lost Jane Dickson Paradise Alley


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Paradise Lost


     Paradise Alley: some kind of joke. "Paradise" has to be stuffed down a dark side street. That must make the rest of the world a living hell. One of the first things you notice about the strip joint is the yellow and black silhouettes of go-go dancers painted over the front windows. Framing these are strings of light bulbs. The effect of these windows is unaccountably violent, like the redundancy of brickwork painted over in contrasting colors: red for the bricks, white for the mortar. A car's parked out in front. On the sidewalk, someone's doubled over in the arms of another.

     In eleven of the fourteen paintings which survey nine years of Jane Dickson's extended Times Square chronicle, the artist conflates the literal canvas with an implies or depicted window.1 The point of view, the cropping, and the subject matter immediately convey this; even window frames, blinds, and curtains turn up in the dimensions of standard office or apartment windows as well. Outside these windows glow signs demanding to be read. Inside, the inevitable spectator looks down onto the street. Although the realist tradition obviously regards painting as a window on the world, that tradition seldom so deliberately registers the window as a representational apparatus. The viewer of Dickson's paintings immediately understands the window/canvas to be both a barrier and a portal which delineates interior and exterior, public and private space. In real life, this seoaration also legislates the difference between threat and safety. Moreover, it sanctions what kind of looking is socially permissible: from inside, anyone on the street is fair game, but anyone caught peering into windows is regarded as a Peeping Tom.

     Walter Benjamin described E.T.A. Hoffmann's short story "The Cousin's Country Window" as "one of the first attempts to capture the street scene of a large city."2 Here, the protagonist, a paralytic, scrutinizes from his apartment window the market crowd below as if they were a tableau vivant. This practice he justifies as "an exercise in the art of seeing." Significantly, the observer is neither a flaneur nor a man of the crowds; his detached position renders street life as primarily a spectacle. This story anticipates the way (but not the social reasons) in which alienation became convention in depictions of the urban milieu. Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rear Window similarly shows the voyeurism not of a paralytic but of a photojournalist temporarily confined to his bed. A photojournalist, ironically, is someone paid to look and to make known what she or he has seen. In this respect, the photojournalist is not so different from the artist/auteur. In feminist film criticism, Rear Window offers a textbook rendition of scopophilia (sexual pleasure in looking) not only within film grammar but also within social relations in general. Power is negotiated via the gaze, which in a patriarchy typically "belongs" to the male. Hitchcock's protaginist, however, looked out on a Greenwich Village courtyard, not on a Times Square street corner.

     Times Square is best known as a headquarters for the sex industry, an industry whose moral dubiousness may have less to do with sex than it does with its links to organized crime. After reports that the Walt Disney Company plans to erect a large family entertainment complex in this area, no one doubts that Times Square soon will be rezoned and "cleaned up." In a sense, it is a living relic. (Curiously, all of Dickson's scenarios in this selection have a dated look; except for the cars, nothing in them seems to have changed for thirty years or more.) The identification of this area as "dirty" is very much predicated upon the way prostitutes are irrationally stigmatized, just as the political economy conversely represses the specter of prostitution haunting legitimized wage labor. As one woman explained: "I've worked in straight jobs where I've felt more like I was prostituting my being than in prostitution. I had less control over my life, and the powerlessness wasn't even up front. People didn't see me as selling myself, but with the minimum wage so little and my boss so insulting, I felt likfe I was selling my soul."3 Although only one of Dickson's pictures shown here portrays a stripper, the figure of the female sex worker cannot be entirely divorced from woman's experience of urban public space as threatening, especially at night. If a woman lingers too long on the corner, she will be quickly pegged as a streetwalker.

     One might feel at home on the street...or one might be forced to make the streets one's own home. In this set of works, the human figure offers the last trace of the organic or "natural" to be seen anywhere. It shrinks before a boundless architectonic grid. The city lights even blot out the stars overhead. The urban landscape appears as an entirely man-made world, a veritable "second nature." The law of this asphalt jungle would seem to be survival of the fittest. In other words, the arbitrary inequities of the social and economic system even in this extremely artifical milieu come to be naturalized as the would-be products of an evolutionary process. Although the street is a common territory where people from all walks of life come together, as Susan Buck-Morss notes, the experience of life on the street is hardly uniform: "For the politically oppressed...existence in public space is...synonymous with state surveillance, public censure and political constraint."4 Two works from 1983, Frisking and 1600 Broadway, show police interrogation to be one of the events which recurs regularly outside the windows. Mother and Child (1985) and Gem Liquors (1983) show women negotiating deserted nighttime streets with children in tow. The public appearance of "bag ladies" comes off as a particularly cruel joke: "...carrying their worldly possessions in worn bags (from Bloomingdale's, perhaps)...," it looks like "...they have just returned from a shopping spree."5

     The Witness series reverses the point of view, positioning the viewer outside the window looking in at obscure figures who are themselves caught looking. This reciprocity between viewer and image, underscored by the window trope, makes clear the "double-staging" implicit in every realist picture. Just as perspective maps the space within the canvas, it simultaneously triangulates the position of the viewer on the other side. Just what is it that the witnesses witness? To what extent should they take responsibility for what they see? And, by extension, to what extent must we, the viewers? The moral statement in Dickson's work comes not from any overt intervention in her subject matter; this, she offers without comment. Rather, it lies in her directing the viewer's gaze to what it has been trained not to see. This writer, who grew up in a small Ohio town, remembers his mother's first visit to New York City. A drunken man was lying in the gutter:

          "Look! We have to stop and help him."

          "No. You don't do that here."

     During the day, the city is the locus for a continuous series of changing impressions or "shocks": sights, smells, sounds, the exchange of glances with a steady stream of anonymous passersby. At night, the pace slows down and electric lighting makes dazzling facades for even the dumpiest of quarters. Even so, a mute brutality dominates the relative emptiness. Typically, one would expect luminosity from Dickson's windows, but she begins by painting her canvases black. Sometimes she prepares the ground with Toll-A-Tex, a readymade texturing compound. Over this, she often sketches the scene in oilstick with highly saturated colors. Dickson's technique is keyed not so much to conventional depiction of reflected light as it is to that of direct light sources. These oilstick strokes have a slightly cruddy feeling, beads of the substance congealing against the grain of the canvas or Rolotex. The brute yeat deadened physicality of the stroke as sych becomes an analogy for the everyday shock of urban experience.

     The sign on the strip joint, Paradise Alley, alludes to a myth which throws into sharp relief what the reality of city life is for the vulnerable and the dispossessed. In biblical terms, paradise refers to the Garden of Eden. God banished Adam and Eve from paradise for having tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: sexuality. They were made to work as punishment for their sin. At the level of fantasy, then, Paradise Alley promises to deliver its clientele from the responsibility to work and the guilt attached to sex. Objectively, however, it's abundantly clear that sex, in almost any form, hurts no one (so long as the right precautions are taken), while a system which fails to provide adequate jobs, food, and shelter wreaks havoc on the masses. This violence is not the desperation of the petty criminal, but the routine and systemic exploitation of those with little or no means to protect themselves.

1The exceptions are Green Garage (1983), Mother and Child (1985), and Stripper II (1983).

2Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 173.

3The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, "Violence Against Women – Appendix: Prostitution," The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 113. Susan Buck-Morss notes that in a social system erected upon the elaborately regulated exchange of women (as gifts, cf., Levi-Strauss), the whore, as a fantasy figure, promises to liberate her buyer from these constraints; see "The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering," New German Critique, 39 (Fall 1986), pp. 120-125.

4Ibid., p. 118.

5Ibid.