An anonymous fifteenth-century Belgian miniature depicts a battle from the Books of the Maccabees in which the hero Eleazar slays a war elephant whose body is about to crush him to death. The illustration shows a truly fanciful creature, a cross between a donkey and an anteater, with an elongated nose, gray fur, and hooves, bearing on its back a stone tower inhabited by three soldiers. The artist, presumably a monk, had evidently never seen an elephant and relied instead on descriptions of the animal. Many similar images exist throughout history and across cultures: manifestations of hearsay, imagination, and interpretation in the absence of visual information. These artists were driven by the insatiable craving to depict places, creatures, and people they had never seen. It appears this desire also drives John Dilg.
Consisting of thirteen small paintings—the largest measuring sixteen by twenty inches—and five drawings, his recent exhibition “Leaving the New World” offered a rare degree of concentration and consistency. All the works depict forlorn and rough settings with sporadic trees. Despite some lakes and waterfalls, the geographies look parched and inhospitable—an effect heightened by the thin and dry paint application. The oversize full moon in many of the pictures enhances their dreamscape quality. The exhibition text described Dilg’s works as “painted forms derived from found images and his memory of the American landscape.” Indeed, to non-American eyes, they are close to our idea of an American vista, perhaps of its grasslands or its rocky Southwest, rather than any specific locale: visions of the nation held by those who have never been there. One might think of Henri Rousseau’s depictions of jungles he never visited. But Dilg’s colors have nothing of Rousseau’s tropical lushness. They are muted, reserved. This place knows winter.
One wonders why an American painter would want to create pictures that feel American while looking as though they were made by someone who has only read about America, depicting fantastical rather than real flora, fauna, and geology. The landscape appears inhospitable, but it is not scarred. Perhaps it is what North America might have been, had it not been ravaged by colonization and industrialization. Could it be that a longing for the country that did not come to pass drives him to paint these scenes? One drawing, melancholically titled Historical Fiction (all works 2022), shows a top-hatted white man and a Native American man sitting together peacefully in a canoe on calm waters, under a starry sky.
Occasional human figures are tiny and unobtrusive, so fully integrated that they become elements, like trees, in the landscape—for instance, the figure watching the whale in Fishing. The only rupture of this otherworldly serenity is in Jungle Republic, whose title might be a nod to Rousseau. A lone leopard, proud, challenging, fills the width of the canvas and looks directly at the viewer. The animal, illuminated by the full moon, is beautifully rendered, but something about it is off. Perhaps its neck is too thick or its head too small? It recalls tigers painted by premodern Japanese painters, masters who had never seen a tiger.
Dilg is highly skilled, and his painterly erudition is unmistakable. He gives shape to an idea of a place that might have but did not come into being. This drive unites him with medieval monks imagining the Levant, Japanese painters throughout the ages pining for classical China, or Rousseau dreaming of the jungle. However, unlike these historical predecessors, he works with the full awareness that what he imagines does not exist. As the drawing’s title suggests, it is a fiction. Art allows one to pursue a world that exists only as a concept. It is a drive that neither melancholy nor loss can temper, because the impulse to give a shape to a place one cannot reach is one of the reasons we bother making art at all.
— Yuki Higashino