"Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities"

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery's big survey of Dickinson's complex career includes 68 paintings plus 26 little-seen works on paper. Through July 14.

Though the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's impressive survey of the work of Edwin Dickinson is helpfully subtitled "Dreams and Realities," the viewer fresh to this eccentric American painter may be forgiven if he or she is never quite sure if it's dreamland or kick-the-rock reality that's being depicted.

Nobody is going to misread huge and elaborate allegorical paintings like "Woodland Scene" and "The Fossil Hunters," with their otherworldly visions of odd personages drifting in ghostly light. These are dream paintings and not happy ones.

If that was it, no problem: Dickinson is a painter of disturbed sleep, an Edgar Allan Poe in paint.

Born in Seneca Falls, Dickinson has had many connections to Western New York. As a young artist he taught at the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, and the Albright-Art Gallery was the first major institution to gave him a solo show. That was in 1927. This exhibition, organized and installed brilliantly by gallery curator Douglas Dreishpoon, reveals that Dickinson won't be so easily typecast.

Even as a young artist, Dickinson (1891-1978) was painting at least three different kinds of pictures. At the far end of the scale from the allegories are rapid-fire small compositions done on the spot in locales on Cape Cod where the artist spent most of his years. Executed in subtle grays or muted tones, these are vital little paintings done in a brisk painterly manner that is in marked contrast to the labored surfaces of the allegories.

Sometimes these fresh and economical paintings hold close to the objective scene, as in the beautifully cool-toned "Sheldrake Winter" (1929). Or, like the flattened gray mass in "X-Cliff, Great Night Rain" (1926), they can tilt toward abstraction.

Simple landscapes like "Sandy's Yard," "Gas Tank" and the wonderfully pared-down "Cottage Porch, Peaked Hill" have a light-of-day directness that keeps the artist's over-brimming unconscious in check. They seem ordinary subjects, sensitively painted with no recourse to metaphor or special pleading from flashy brushwork.

But a reporter Dickinson was not. Even these realistic paintings are laced with sliding silver tones or forlorn empty spaces or misty soft-edged forms. He was always the poet, and could dream with his eyes open.

In between the two extremes, Dickinson practiced a sometimes maudlin, neo-romantic painting featuring blurry nudes, surreal landscapes and indistinct torsos. These are not only dreamlike, they are a-penny-for-your-thoughts dreamy. A rose the size of a cabbage doesn't poke out at you from a landscape in real life ("The Finger Lakes"), nor does a woman normally appear as though seen through a crinkly, antique piece of glass ("Evangeline").

Most striking among this melancholy group are the brown-hued self-portraits, among the most mournful pictures in the show. We may pass off the puzzling allegories as weird artistic conceits. But if we doubt that Dickinson was a thoroughly haunted man, we need only look at these anguished faces. They seem dumb-struck by the very fact of being alive.

Dickinson's life gave him ample cause for self-depictions of mental torment. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was a child and his brother committed suicide in 1913. Then, at Verdun during World War I, the closest friend of his youth was killed.

From a historical viewpoint, this solemn work may make you wonder if there isn't really something intrinsic in the American psyche that makes so many of our artists death-obsessed. In the face of the self-portraits, I could only think of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's doomed, morally fenced-in characters. And, what could be a better description of this painter of cadaverous figures in blackish chambers than D.H. Lawrence's comment on Poe: "He was an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul."

For all his old-fashioned romanticism and Gothic leanings, Dickinson looked long and hard at the modern painters. The knowledge gained produced masterpieces like "Cottage Porch, Peaked Hill" and a number of superb abstract-surreal paintings of the '40s.

He also paid close attention to the achievements of the great abstract painters in his midst - Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning (whom he knew well). And sometimes, when the paint application approached abandon, it looked like he was about to break free of subject matter. But in the end he hung stubbornly to traditional motifs - portraits, nudes, still lifes and landscapes. "Quarry, Riverdale" (1953), painted when abstract expressionism was white hot, toys with all-over pattern, but a discernible lake and rock prevent it from happening.

Even a lovely early foray into Cezanne's structured landscape, "Toward Mrs. Dricoll's," is Cezanne without the critical battle of cool-warm colors. And he is compelled to add, almost as an apology for his departure from realism, an old board leaning prominently in the foreground with illusionistic wood grain. The odd realistic touch, instead of disrupting the abstract solution, lifts the painting into another imaginative realm where the tyranny of art styles hold little sway.

Dickinson was unique in his merging of the languages of academic and modern art. It was an odd and unwieldy mix, but for an artist of Dickinson's sensibilities it held rich poetic potential. From it he mined paintings that could approach a kind of planned delirium and a variety of freer work that brought him, if not exactly down to earth, then hovering somewhere near it.

After closing in Buffalo on July 14, the exhibit will make the following stops:

Sept. 14 to Dec. 1: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia;

Jan. 31 to April 13, 2003: National Academy of Design in New York;

May 9 to July 20, 2003: Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock;

Aug. 29 to Dec. 9, 2003: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

A 285-page catalog of the exhibit, which includes essays written by Dreishpoon and others, is also available.