John Dobbs

by Donald Goddard

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Deodand # 2
, 1969 (not in exhibition).
Oil on Linen, 54" x 44"
It's not as though his spaces and images are not there. They are very much there, at times impossible to avoid both as illusions and as very palpable surfaces of paint or charcoal, as structures, and as immanently probing flashes of light and dark. In a painting titled Deodand #2 (not in this exhibition), done at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1969, a revolver is pointed directly at the viewer in front of a policeman's visored and helmeted head. There is no place to turn, except away from the picture entirely. It is also clear that the gun and the person behind it have come from something and will result in something, just as we will. Dobbs' reality is one that is both aged and predictive, that is, it has a preexistence and an entropic future; degradation is equal to and as evident as immanence--they are held in balance, on either side of a momentarily definitive present or continuity. In this regard, baseball is a kind of metaphor in Dobbs' work, in which the pitcher and the batter are equally immanent and entropic in turn. What we see or experience is perhaps that which the ball in flight might see or experience.

When he painted the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s and 1980s, they appeared as apparitions, as though they might one day be ruins, and, indeed, another painting in lower Manhattan shows the towers behind the crumbling structure of an old pier.

In this context there are all kinds of realities that can come forth. The context is an abstract one, made of shapes and textures and structures of lines and colors. Revolution--Escalation of the early 1990s is a geometric construction--a vertical rectangle containing a cylinder crossed by diagonals rising left to right. Within this structure movement is both circular and upward: revolution--escalation. But then there is a set of concurrent contradictions that creates an extraordinary sense of mystery and ambiguity. Light, rather than encompassing, is on the inside, framed by darkness. One figure, the most prominent, moves out into the darkness and is hidden by it. The others remain inside, nearly obliterated by light, with some even ascending further into the light, as though that held some promise. It feels like a process of transubstantiation, or perhaps psychoanalysis, toward some unknown and completely unconscious goal. The escalator hovers in mid-air. Why would one enter here? To what purpose? The rectangle is itself like a picture, and the exiting figure like someone leaving his own world of fantasy into the larger world surrounding it.

, ca. 1993.
Oil on linen, 52" x 36"

Motel Window mid-70s
Motel Window
, mid-1970s.
Oil on linen, 39" x 29"
Our lives are extended by everything else in the world, but, of course, only a very small part of that can be known. Yet everything registers through our "eye's mind," as Dobbs has called it, and everything has a hopelessly layered and convoluted history. So a painter includes a lot that he knows nothing about, or very little about--light, atmosphere, materials, history--but with the knowledge that the painting itself can include, or at least suggest, all those things. 14th Street Station--Platform Blue is a place of pure becoming, like a scientific proposition. Light is there, and space, held within a perspectival structure and the procession of vertical blue poles (only in my mind a reference to Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles). Human figures are spectral, like ghost images in a photograph, so time has been admitted somehow. But the larger issue of time is held at bay. The train is not there. It has been, or it will be, but where is it, and which one was it or will it be, ten years ago or ten minutes from now? Waiting for trains induces a strange existential texture and interlinking of thoughts.

That painting forces us to look into the distance; others prevent us from doing so. Not with a Bang has a man seated in profile watching a TV set, also in profile, so only a curved glimmer of the screen is seen. The man sees into the television image, but we don't, so our link to him, somehow, is interrupted, as though we could know something about him by what he watches, and takes place only on the picture plane. Motel Window is one of a number of paintings and drawings Dobbs did in the 1970s about the inherently alienating spaces of motels, domesticity on the road. The structure is completed in primary colors--red, yellow, and blue--and is a flat surface that cannot reveal anything beyond itself, the split image of a lamp and darkness framed by curtains. Human presence is suggested or essential, as it is in all of Dobbs' views of human habitation and workplaces, but our ability to see into it has been strongly curtailed and refracted.

When the human body is the subject, particularly in nude studies and some of the baseball pictures, the strictures of architecture are removed and the figures expand to fill the space. Energies that went into depicting structures and surfaces, into their unflinching and eccentric detailing, now go into the peculiarities and lushness of human form and movement. In Undressing, a tiny painting of the 1980s, the torso of a woman is seen from the front. Her gesture, reaching behind her back to undo her clothes, and the expanse of her hips and torso push her outward so that she almost becomes the edges of the painting. She is in the process of loosening the restraints of environment to become herself and the painting at the same time. Still, we do not see her face and must remain outside, in our own selves. Biology is no less mysterious and inevitable than geometry. In Dobbs' work there is an exhaustive desire to know what is being experienced, and the impossibility of knowing how far that is possible.

Donald Goddard © 2001

Undressing early 1980s
, early 1980s.
Oil on gesso panel, 5 1/2" x 4 3/4"

The exhibition took place at Hudson River Gallery & Conservators, Dobbs Ferry, NY.

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