April 06, 2006

John Dubrow at Lori Bookstein
by John Goodrich


Color is the most inscrutable of a painting's ingredients. A single hue can be insistent or elusive, exuberant or inert. Sequences of colors move in space, imparting tangible weight to locations and gestures. In the hands of a capable colorist, their intervals become eloquent, turning a painting into a vibrantly varied whole.

John Dubrow (b. 1958) is a superb colorist, and his recent landscapes at Lori Bookstein show off his gifts exceptionally well. The five large paintings feature his familiar blocky—almost clunky—strokes, applied with wide brushes and palette knives. But their eloquence lies elsewhere. These scenes of city parks and streets all lend themselves to his luminously weighted color, and the artist responds with a remarkable eye for the integrating force of sunlight. 

The artist's descriptions are less intricate than in some previous landscapes and figure paintings; it looks as though he has cast off the last restraints of literalism. Perhaps he no longer feels the need to explain his forms. In any event, they explain themselves. Each patch of color is a revelation of light, and each color pulse—whether it describes the shadowed underside of a sunbather's foot, or a billowing canopy of leaves—is vital to the cohering images. 

Great diagonal swaths of color set up a panoramic drama in "View From Studio, Brooklyn" (2001-06). As always, Mr. Dubrow's colors don't simply indicate space; they make it palpable. A sunlit parking lot, warmed to an opaque terracotta-gray, turns cool and dense in shadow, and the dividing line between the two becomes a deep drive into space. Above it range orangey-pink tiers of sunlit factory walls, perforated by a single, placid blue: a glimpse of the East River. A lighter, vacuous blue fills the canvas's upper half as sky. Below it, all structures are bound to earth by the taut, insistent span of the Williamsburg Bridge. 

There are three park scenes in this exhibition. Modulated greens, punctuated by the bright notes of figures, stream across the lower portions of each painting. Behind, patches of denser greens rise as complex walls of foliage. The small figures, little more than pale slabs, are irregular in shape but startlingly specific in their disposition. Their measured hues—glowing ochres, retiring light browns, neutral tan-yellows—succinctly size up the gestures of sprawling, sitting, and propped on elbows. 

In "Union Square" (2005-06), the dart-like mass of one prone figure is buoyed upon the grass, unattached by even a shadow. But within the larger circulation of colors, his location beneath the overhanging trees is utterly convincing, indeed indispensable to the coalescing rhythms. Like every other element, his identity is inseparable from an overall pictorial urgency. The viewer needs only to follow any family of colors into the depths—say, the warm and cool off-whites that play the various roles of blankets, T-shirts, and flowering shrubs—to experience both the chaos of nature and the artist's embracing control. 

Such control would be oppressive were it iron-fisted, but Mr. Dubrow's improvisational rhythms and freely re-worked surfaces reflect a reliance on intuition rather than calculation. In fact, part of the appeal of these intensely knit paintings is their stylistic modesty; the artist seems to have no other interest than to uncover intuitive truths among bewildering stimuli. Their great reward is that the artist not only searches but finds, too.