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Swell map: Dorman’s Ladders.

All Over the Map
By David Brickman

Josh Dorman

Lake George Arts Project Courthouse Gallery, through June 17

Remember that kid in your fourth-grade class, a couple rows over and toward the back who used to draw, like, all the time? That kid could have been Josh Dorman. And, as represented in a solo show at the Lake George Arts Project’s Courthouse Gallery, Dorman is still that kid

Endlessly doodling and fantasizing—but most of the time now on a slightly grander scale—Dorman is best introduced by a group of 32 unframed drawings pinned to one wall of the gallery. Dated 2001-2005 and of a modest size determined by the paper used (mostly antique ledger-book pages, stained with age), these drawings provide a sort of key to Dorman’s lexicon of forms. They include fragments of landscapes, skeletons, volcanoes and other mountain forms, imaginary vehicles, microscopic organisms, clouds, roads and bridges, birds and animals, surrealistic shadows, lakes, trees, swamps, cartoony concoctions and unrecognizable things.

There are also collage elements suggested here, particularly by two pieces that are drawn onto found images of exotic landscapes; in Dorman’s more developed pieces throughout the rest of the gallery, this method is oft repeated, and just as often drawings like those on the big wall are glued into bigger pictures. The majority of the larger works are constructed upon topographic maps and/or built with fragments of such maps.

This layering and interaction is essential to Dorman’s process, as is the playfulness he brings by incorporating words, often punning, and odd juxtapositions within his visual iconography. It is an intuitional more than a planned way of working—comparable to a jazz player riffing on a saxophone—and it leads to images that are open to interpretation.

Given that the drawings and paintings are on maps, and that many of them explicitly depict hills and valleys, one is tempted to categorize them as landscapes. But watch out—Dorman’s statement specifically states that they are not, at least not in the classical sense. He writes, “My goal is not to depict the way light plays on the treetops, but I do want to get inside to see the rings of the trees, explore the structure of the roots and branches, understand the bark,” and in so doing he lets us know that this work is done from the inside out. Definitely not Thomas Cole.

A typical Dorman piece in this show begins with an old map, rippling with topographical lines. Dorman follows the lines with his pen or brush, obliterating, creating new shapes, and eventually pulling the flat landscape depicted on the surveyor’s grid back out into three-dimensional space, with foreground, middle ground and background. Along the way, he may add naturalistic or more imaginary colors, as well as any number of his signature animals, trees, lakes, buildings, machines, etc. Often, there are precipitous mountains in the distance, and the buildings can take on an ominous presence as factories or infernal contraptions.

The result can be fun, beautiful, mysterious or all three at once. Certain pieces go pretty wild with the colors—Pink Mountain (2003) features pink, turquoise, ruby, purple and ochre—while others, such as The Babocomari Mountain Works (2001), stay muted in the greens, browns, grays and blues of a natural scene. One piece, titled Tiny City (2001), has placed a distant, detailed metropolis where Gloversville appears on the map; it is nestled in a beautiful patchwork of fields and beyond it is a majestic purple peak. Though Dorman lives in Brooklyn, the local reference is not a fluke—in fact, there are many of them here—as he studied at Skidmore and still teaches there summers.

In addition to the many map-based drawings in the show, Dorman includes several more painterly works on canvas. One of those, Spindling Sky (2004), features a low horizon line (the sea, apparently), above which glimmers a sky of neither day nor night, with odd shapes floating in it (perhaps a vision of one-celled underwater creatures). The yellows, pinks, purples and blues of the painting are mixed with white, giving them a creamy consistency and a pretty softness that I find appealing but that is not typical of the rest of the work in the show. I suspect Dorman is taking care not to come off as too decorative.

More typical of the style represented here overall is a very large piece aptly titled Everything There Is (2005), in which the additive, random process dominates a Brueghel-like scene of chaos and intensity. Though one laughingly recognizes a whole lot of stuff in the picture, including a lovingly rendered nest with eggs and a silhouetted beast with its skeleton revealed, the tongue-in-cheek title suggests that the painting’s slyly apocalyptic vision is meant to be taken with a large dose of humor.

It is fairly unusual for the Arts Project to mount a solo show; Dorman’s big-city success may have had something to do with the decision to give him such big play—but it also reveals a weakness. In the handsome catalog produced for a recent solo show by Dorman at New York’s CUE Foundation, there are quite a few strong paintings represented from the same time period that are only hinted at by the work shown here. I don’t know if they were sold or what—but it seems that Dorman did not put his best foot forward in the exhibition at Lake George.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Rob O’Neil: Projections

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June 12

These 10 gelatin silver prints by Rob O’Neil from a body of work titled Projections make a nice addition to the [Re]collections show, as they also use historical artifacts in interesting and transformative configurations.

O’Neil, who teaches at the College of Saint Rose, has strong technique and an idea that transcends being a gimmick. By projecting the images from antique educational lantern slides, then staging scenes in front of them and photographing the set-ups, he creates layered, storylike representations of his thoughts. Some are more literal, others more surreal, but all of them have interesting attitudes.

In this series, the slides show industrial subjects: a dam, a mine, a harbor, a grain elevator, etc. O’Neil adds related objects and interjects an arm or a profile (in one case, half a figure) as a sort of everyman researcher on the job. This hand often holds glass lab equipment or a lit match, like a scientist might.

My favorite is called Ice. In it, a view of a boat in arctic waters is augmented by block and tackle much like the boat’s rigging, creating a nice illusion of continuity. In all the prints, which are large for photographs, O’Neil’s excellent black-and-white printing adds to the effect. The display offers a nice opportunity to see a substantial body of work by one of the area’s better photographers.

—David Brickman


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