Every One, Every Day
Nearly a hundred years after is inception, abstraction remains a central concern despite, or perhaps because of, several moments of doubt in the past century. To be sure, the so-called death of painting, whether of the figurative or non-objective variety, is such a critical cliché in the history of modernism that it hardly makes sense anymore to think of the medium as exclusively one thing or another. It is certain, however, that painting can draw inspiration from just about anything, and that its practitioners continue to wrestle with the most basic questions of mark making: does painting allude to or attempt to summarize events beyond the studio, or does it turn its gaze inward to its own materials and techniques in an attempt to find meaning within its physical constraints? Is abstraction an intimation of a transcendent world beyond the veil of appearance or one locked firmly within the artist’s imagination? Is the painter’s audience potentially quite broad, with the artist serving as a spokesperson; is it limited to the cognoscenti; or, perhaps, is it only a community of one, the artist him or herself?
Such questions understandably arise when confronting a new set of paintings by Hamlett Dobbins. His latest canvases both continue an already pronounced investigation of abstraction, and stand as a coherent body of work in their own right. Often situating a dense cluster of shapes over a broader, ambient background, the paintings engage in a simple game of figure ground relationships. Yet recognizing this ancient concern about illusionistic space hardly begins to get after the works’ complexity, nor does it explain the range of shapes and their relationship with one another, not to mention the possibility of a vast and rich terrain opened up through allusion.
Perhaps it would help, initially, to consider his method of generating ideas. In recent years Dobbins has amassed a large stockpile of images recorded with his digital camera. These images range from portraits of friends and family, to snapshots of chance visual epiphanies in everyday life as well as landscapes encountered while traveling, to a veritable warehouse of other paintings that hold his attention. Reworking them in a Photoshop version of collage, Dobbins alters, adds, and subtracts the raw material, keeping his approach to manipulation open to mistakes. All of this helps him to shift from the realm of the tangible, with its host of potentially limiting associations and memories, to that of the virtual. Once shaped to his satisfaction each image is filed, along with many others, awaiting recall presently or in the future. Those printed out are placed on the walls of his studio along with many other materials that provide him with inspiration and reference.
If inspected closely, and with the guidance of Dobbins, his printouts still betray some semblance of their beginnings, but the origins are no longer as significant for him as the direction they yield in organizing his compositions. Nor do they prepare one for the variety of texture evident on the surface of a given painting. Indeed, the paintings offer enough visual drama to overshadow completely the preliminary sketches that first helped Dobbins on his way.
Still, the idea of portraits, landscapes and tangible phenomena, and other paintings is nonetheless felt as one stands before an individual canvas in that each work communicates its own presence as a fully realized entity. Encountered singly or hung in a group, the paintings command the kind of attention we give to compelling experiences, whether they be emotional, phenomenological, or aesthetic. At their best such experiences force us to stop and concentrate on the situation at hand, knowing that in the process we will have our own acuity tested and sharpened. The extent to which this happens is largely contingent on the care with which we choose to engage each painting.
At a distance of several feet, the surface/depth relationship is most evident, with shapes apparently floating above a field as though seen from the air or drifting before the atmospheric backdrop of a computer screen. Either effect suggests the mutability of vision painting can foster. But this distance can and must give way to the close view, where the intricate relationship of shape to surrounding line, or of color to adjacent color, reveals added layers of space within space, of ostensibly flat shapes opening up further depths within their contours. This close view discloses differences of brush size and stroke, of sharply edged lines and passages of less distinct definition mutating into and around others of seemingly indeterminate identity. A passage of delicately nuanced greens evokes the costumes of the commedia dell-arte. Clustered forms resembling plant life become dense masses of comic book-inspired patterning. Whiplash lines redolent of waves and shells allude to the tags of graffiti artists, and so on. The process continues for as long as we desire, perhaps not unlike that of dealing with another person or place.
To suggest that Dobbins is thoroughly immersed in the long history of abstraction is not to pigeon hole his technique or sensibility, but rather to argue that within this continuum he has managed to find a means of satisfying his own curiosity and ambition by recognizing that the promise of art is one of continual discovery. His own diligence in remaining open to experience has resulted in a group of paintings that provide visual engagement to any one at any time, or, to reframe his chosen title for this exhibtion, to every one, every day.
Professor, History of Art, Rhodes College
21 August 2007
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