April 20, 2015

Two current exhibitions feature notable painters of the urban scene
by Jerry Weiss

This past Saturday afternoon I left the Art Students League to view two exhibitions of New York City paintings—constant readers will recall my interest in city subjects. Originally I thought the juxtaposition of two artists’ works, seen in rapid order, would constitute a mildly
mischievous undertaking. In the event, I was impressed by similarities, as well as the obvious differences. The painters, Richard Estes and John Dubrow, benefit from venues that match their styles. Estes’ work is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, where the glass, stone and
steel of his subjects align with the building’s interior, as well as the exterior views of Columbus Circle. Dubrow’s paintings are presented at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, and on a fine April day the gallery’s doors opened onto Tenth Avenue and the High Line, an urban playground in tune
with Dubrow’s paintings. 

John Dubrow, Playground, 2012–15. Oil on linen, 72 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art. 

In an entirely different way, technique is also front and center in the most recent paintings by John Dubrow. The surfaces of Dubrow’s canvases are, as the gallery describes them, almost geological in appearance. Paint has been troweled onto the canvases in patterns that appear
carefully designed, yet which surely shifted in the process of painting and repainting. The crusted pigment has accreted to such a density that even the hard edges of architectural planes are softened at the meeting of seams. Unvarnished, the geometric patterns have a raw tactility
that belies their high-key color—a child’s sunlit shirt in Playground appears to have been spontaneously painted wet-into-wet with a brush, and the brio of the passage is welcome. 

These paintings are, in one way, the realization of a painter’s dream to retain the energy of a sketch in large scale. In reproduction, TriBeCa 2 could pass for a pochade study; seen in the gallery, its abstracted shapes acquire tremendous force. Whether intended or not, one finds
multiple references to modern masters: the upper right hand corner paraphrases Hans Hoffman, the arboreal shapes at upper left echo Robert Motherwell’s Elegies (in other paintings, the foliage, heavy in shape and beautiful in their subtle coloring, are reminiscent of Pissarro or
Cezanne); the human interchanges of the lower half, played out in dappled light, are more subtle. These ‘samplings’ don’t come across as derivative—to the contrary, they are the intelligent improvisations of a formidable painter. 

John Dubrow, Playground Sandbox, 2008-15. Oil on linen, 44 x 54 in. 
Courtesy of the Artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art. 

Dubrow’s painting has long played with tensions between observation and abstraction. Presentiments of the current works are found in paintings made from a studio in the World Trade Center in the 1990s, when the artist surveyed the city from great height, assembling hundreds of
distant architectural slabs as one might a puzzle of brightly lit pieces. The images were composed of multitudinous small blocks of color, which through skillful drawing and precise modulation of color were also convincingly atmospheric. In this show, precision and atmosphere give
way to abstraction: Playground is no longer an actual place observed, but a revisiting of an earlier composition. The design is the same, but the effect is more evanescent and more intimate. In Playground Sandbox the actual subject hardly seems to matter; the playground is the
canvas itself, animated by clever pattern and sensitive color, the pigment applied like stucco. As Dubrow’s paintings literally get heavier, they attain greater lightness of feeling. 

John Dubrow, TriBeCa 2, 2014–15. Oil on linen, 50 x 44 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art. 

In completely different ways, both Estes and Dubrow celebrate their city, the one through consistent adherence to a type of visual fact in which mark-making is suppressed, the other in a personal survey of the stuff of painting. Both artists create their major works in the studio—Estes
continues to use his photographs for reference, while Dubrow refers to memory, sensation, and other paintings. Estes’ vision has always been easily accessible, for it documents exteriors which any New Yorker may identify. Dubrow is giving voice to an interior life, one in which the
city becomes a motif for joyous formal explorations, even as the role of the urban subject seems to be increasingly incidental. 

What New York City has supplied for both artists, as it has for so many others, is a rich source of visual complexity. Each has distilled from the city a different and unique form of poetry. 

John Dubrow: Transformations continues at Lori Bookstein Fine Art through April 25, 2015. 

Weiss, Jerry. “Two current exhibitions feature notable painters of the urban scene,” LINEA, April 20, 2015.