January 2017

David Lusk Gallery | January 3 through February 4

by Kathleen Boyle

Hamlet Dobbins; Photograph by Jamie Harmon

Memphis-based artist Hamlett Dobbins’s latest collection of acrylic paintings epitomizes one of the greatest challenges posed by visual abstraction: the suggestion of specific artistic intent as expressed only by pure color and form. A lack of figuration can frequently source a dichotomy for viewers, a push and pull between the intellectual curiosity enabled by non-representational elements and the desire to uncloak a particular narrative, sentiment, and/or motivation at the core of a work. Perhaps this is why Dobbins has appropriately called his exhibition of untitled abstract paintings I Will Have to Tell You Everything on view at the David Lusk Gallery through the month of January.

“The artist presents to viewers paintings that look to be cognitively taxing yet ultimately gratifying labors of love achieved only after many long, hard hours of focused meditation.”

Untitled (Notes on K.S.P./E.R.S./U.A.), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 40” x 48”

Upon visiting Dobbins’s recent collection, it is clear that the painting medium provides the artist with an avenue for expressive release. It is also obvious that Dobbins’s abilities are highly advanced and technical, a reflection of the graduate degrees he earned from the University of Iowa’s Fine Arts department. Each composition comes across as an exercise that aims to confront established painting practices and prove that visual juxtapositions which shouldn’t please can, in fact, appease the senses. Dobbins tackles elements such as dimensional illusion, applied shape, color relationship, and pigment saturation in a manner that is rebellious yet thoughtful, aggressive yet tender. And while these contradictory outcomes harmonize upon their shared surface as though conflict was never at stake, there is another observable informant to Dobbins’s work that permeates throughout his imagery: order.

Untitled (for J.A.H./N.A.C.), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 46” x 54”

Such observation should not be misunderstood as a critique that harbors any form of negative slant. On the contrary, Dobbins’s paintings stand as an amalgamation of deliberate decisions regularly scrutinized, worked, and reworked until they achieved an acceptable, and thus final, effect. There appear to be no mistakes in Dobbins’s work, no accidents that somehow happened to make the final cut. Rather, the artist presents to viewers paintings that look to be cognitively taxing yet ultimately gratifying labors of love achieved only after many long, hard hours of focused meditation.

Dobbins’s artwork demonstrates accomplishment not only because it is well painted, but also because it is well thought. “There is a vulnerability that goes with making paintings; all of my paintings are about very personal, specific moments with family and friends,” he explains. The featured paintings in Dobbins’s I Will Have to Tell You Everything were completed after the artist returned from a period of working in Rome from 2013–2014. The recipient of the Jules Guerin Rome Prize in Visual Arts offered by the American Academy in Rome, Italy, Dobbins found that the international fellowship enlivened his artistic practice by creating new, and reflecting upon past, significant life experiences.

Untitled (for M.R.M./E.R.S.), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 33” x 40”

This element of personal reflection is further heightened in the studio when Dobbins listens to podcasts while working. One particular podcast that Dobbins revisits is an episode from NPR’s This American Life series titled “Stories of Loss.” Narrated by actress Felicity Jones, the podcast is an excerpt from Genevieve Jurgensen’s book The Disappearance: A Memoir of Loss in which Jurgensen recounts the loss of her two daughters—Elise and Mathilde—at the ages of 4 and 7. “The Disappearance is an episode that I’ve listened to for years, and I will still think of it from time to time,” explains Dobbins. “The stories would bubble to the surface in my studio while working.

One of the phrases used early in the book is, ‘I will have to tell you everything’. It’s hard for me to come up with text to describe my process. What I do is find something that works well with what I’m thinking or interested in, and take that to lead into my story.”

Untitled (for J.A.H./O.S.M.), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 29” x 35”

There is also a multimedia aspect to Dobbins’s artwork; his paintings are recreations of collages that he meticulously composes prior to mixing his pigments. As photographic software became more common for pedestrian use, Dobbins experimented with computer programs that enabled him to upload, arrange, and manipulate images of significance until the final composition took on its own heavily abstracted appearance. Dobbins then prints the image, and creates a painting with as much likeness to its digital doppelgänger as possible. “Painting,” he explained, “is a transformative, quiet, and solitary part of the process.”

Dobbins’s use of acrylic paints comes with its own set of obstacles. “Acrylics have a naturally higher chroma, which requires me to be more aware or embrace shifts in color, to be more conscious of color and how it works,” he said of the medium’s difference from oil paint. “Acrylic allows me to do things with color that I never would have thought about before, and because they dry faster than oils, part of my brain needs to be fast as well, to work through ideas quickly, and thus freeing me up to do things in studio that I couldn’t do with oil.”

Untitled (for K.S.P./E.R.S./U.A.), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 46” x 54”

As implied by its title, I Will Have to Tell You Everything is a collection of intimate paintings. And while their abstraction may hinder an immediate divulgence of Dobbins’s personal details, these paintings can help us recognize sentiments we already know.

I Will Have to Tell You Everything by Hamlett Dobbins is on view at David Lusk Gallery January 3 through February 4. For more information, visit www.davidluskgallery.com. To see more of Hamlett Dobbins’s work, visit www.hamlettdobbins.com.

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