early morning paintings

First Light
The “Early Morning Paintings” of Hamlett Dobbins

Carol Knowles, The Memphis Flyer, July 20, 2005.

As seen in the exhibit “Early Morning Paintings” at David Lusk Gallery, it’s a new day for Hamlett Dobbins. Gone are the scumbled, thickly impastoed heads from some of Dobbins’ earlier works that suggested sediments and layers of psyche to be excavated. The artist no longer attempts to ground his experiences in large rectangular grids. Instead, he’s stripped away extraneous elements to get at the essential, works of art that accomplishes what abstract painter Robert Motherwell described as “closing the void … quenching our profound need for intense, immediate, direct experience.”

Every centimeter of Dobbins’ oils on canvas (the large works) and his linen panels (the medium-sized and smaller paintings) is an intensely constructed work of art. In “Untitled (for N.J.P. (orange),” tiny red, white, and blue rectangles weave into what looks like taffeta, that wonderful high-luster, crinkly but smooth fabric of wedding and evening gowns. The entire surface of “Untitled (for D. L.)” is covered with complex compositions the size of a dab of paint. These shimmering bits of layered colors never coalesce into Pierre Bonnard’s wife at her bath or George Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte.” They serve as metaphor for an abstract body of work whose hues and textures are so accurately recoded they evoke temperature, time of day, season, and tactile sensation. For instance, “Untitled (for C.D.),” described synesthetically, is frayed denim on skin. It is warm sun and cool shadow in a field of grass on a summer day.

Some of Dobbins’ compositions are playful appropriations of masterworks combined with images as varied as storybook illustrations, fashion-magazine spreads, and patches of linoleum on drugstore floors. “Untitled (for M.W.G./M.R.M.)” pays homage to the action painters (Jackson Pollock, et al.) and to the irrepressible energy of the artist’s two-year-old daughter, Milla. Spidery lines of light-blue paint puddle and pool as they meander across a background that reads like a pink-gold cyclone. Dobbins underscores this energy with entropy by breaking the golden lines of the whirlwind. This work evokes not only the action painters’ art but also the way they lived – intensely, flamboyantly, and sometimes self-destructively.

Bubblegum-pink biomorphs attach like thin-necked precipices to the left side of “Untitled (for E.J.K/I.V.),” and denim-blue Al Capp Shmoos mingle with rectangles that cock in every direction. Some of these cartoon-like blobs are inlaid with soft white and blue aureoles set against blue-black. This intricate pattern looks like a cosmos crammed with stars. As with many of the abstractions in this show, these figures appear to be joyful, with the whole of creation informing their joy. In “Untitled (for G.K.),” a gilded table, an oriental rug, some flowers, and a dancer’s clothing become an orange globe that juts into the middle of the picture plane surrounded by mountains of chevrons and abstract organic forms. The artist transforms the orange orb into a color field as evocative as Mark Rothko’s floating rectangles; however, Dobbins’ emphasis is not the transcendental but the infinite inflections of the given world.

Rather than analyzing light falling on objects (as in the noonday cityscapes of Edward Hopper, to whom this artist is sometimes compared), Dobbins’ paintings emanate light. The ochre and peach colors in a field of green at dawn in “Untitled, for M.R.M./M.L.,” the orange orb in “Untitled (for G.K.),” and the royal-blue grid of diamonds in “Untitled (for I.V /N.O.)” all appear to glow from the inside out. The artist achieves this luminosity by alternately layering his colors with a brush and a rubber brayer.

The largest (at 72″x60″) and one of the strongest paintings in this ingeniously conceived and consummately executed show is “Untitled (for I.V./N.O).” Red-orange and naples-yellow ribbons form double-helixes up and down an orange-ochre torso, while off-white, semi-abstract figures dance among the ribbons and around the torso’s curves. The spiraling ribbons and phantom dancers suggest that genetic memory and subconscious experience inform this work. A web of royal-blue diamonds forms the backdrop and stunningly contrasts the flowing reds and yellows. Some of the diamonds are nearly lost in shadow and others are luminous. Each diamond’s inner glow is slightly different from the next. This painting of a round, sentient body surrounded by thousands of facets of the luminous world is dedicated to the artist’s son, Ives (Hamlett Dobbins IV), born four months before the opening of his father’s show.

Early Morning Paintings at David Lusk Gallery through July 30th.

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