THE NEW CRITERION
October 01, 2010
by James Panero
When I wrote about John Dubrow’s last show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in May 2008, I praised him for his effortful canvases. Dubrow is an abstract artist painting representational scenes that expose the construction of pictorial space. Now back at Bookstein, his paintings can be battlegrounds, places where he might wrestle for years with a single composition—oil on canvas by way of hammer and forge. The results reveal the drama of execution, where countless layers of paint muscle the images into place and still contend with an uneasy truce of surface treatment and depth.
This battle becomes particularly pitched in his cityscapes. I first saw the epic painting “Prince and Broadway” (2002–2010), of pedestrians at a crosswalk, back in 2003. Dubrow has been fighting with it ever since. Whether it was finished two, four, or even eight years ago is an unanswerable question. It certainly seemed good and done, but Dubrow is clearly not one to leave well enough alone. And yes, this painting has improved through its latest reworking. The tonalities of reflected light are sharper. More significantly, the figures have come forward. A male pedestrian has lost his suit jacket, revealing a white shirt underneath that pulls him up and makes him a more haunting presence.
It is remarkable to realize how intimately Dubrow must know these canvases by now. He reaches in and ever so slightly tweaks his dioramas in paint. Each move, which he documents through photographs, becomes another frame in a stopgap animation that gives the images their life.
When Dubrow turns to portraiture, the pressing issues of pictorial space are far less acute. Here the psychological presence of his sitters takes up its own space and lets Dubrow ride a little in the backseat, giving this body of work a relative ease. Without the aid of photographs or even preparatory drawings, Dubrow carries his large canvases with him to the subjects’ homes and offices for the sittings, then works on them more back in the studio.
The personalities of the subjects come through in their relationship to the space around them. The painter Tine Lundsfryd, with legs crossed on a swivel chair, spins out from the confining opening of a doorway. The poet Mark Strand glares out from his desk with arms folded, his expression reflected in his glass desk. A single flash of color often shines out of these muted spaces—the pink light in a window, the blue of a chair—assigning a dominant tone to each of the subjects.
This exhibition, which pairs the cityscapes with the portraits, shows how Dubrow is learning to borrow from each to inform the other. The figures in his cityscapes continue to come forward, while his portraits are settling into the space around them.