Making Pictures
John Dubrow at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries; Mel Ramos at Bernaducci-Meisel Gallery

"There is more to life than making pictures."
Vincent Van Gogh

AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF WAR—begun and ended with astonishing brevity—gallery hopping seems a particularly indolent sport. Even a vacant one. What work is worth the time it takes to see it? What was worth the time an artist spent making it?

Scalding images are everywhere, in newspapers, television and the internet. With so much to look at—or to look away from—it is easy to believe that the last thing the world needs is another painting. Jacques Maritain's comment, in The Responsibility of the Artist, comes back to me with the poignancy of a rebuke: "Art has nothing to say when it comes to the good of human life."

It is a hard thought, impossible to refute in sight of most of what presents itself for show. But every so often work comes along that does address the dignity of life and the way it is revealed in art. Art says it slant, but that is no bar to truth. John Dubrow's exhibition, his fifth at Salander-O'Reilly, testifies that some pictures are, indeed, necessary.

La Grande Jatte
John Dubrow, detail, Self Portrait, 2000-2001

Salander-O'Reilly has become indispensable to figurative painters who care about what Kenyon Cox termed "the classic spirit." This is the point of view that, as Cox wrote, "…desires that each new presentation of truth and beauty shall show us the old truth and the old beauty, seen only from a different angle and colored by a different medium. It wishes to add link by link to the chain of tradition, but it does not wish to break the chain." That was written in 1911. The chain is longer now and Dubrow is establishing his place in it.

He brings a distinctive intelligence to his motifs. At his finest, Dubrow invests subjects—places, no less than people—with a moral dimension that is as rare as it is humane. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he uncovers this dimension where he finds it: in the architecture of cities and of the human form; in the design inherent in man and his world.

His cityscapes, lovely in coloration and rigorous in construction, deserve the recognition they have achieved. My favorite in this show is West Side Highway, one of three luminous urban views. Gone is the vigorous diagonal so helpful for leading the eye into the scene. Instead, the eye is greeted by a series of verticals that lend definition to the seeming chaos of the view. The midmost stake, marking the center of the canvas, is not an object at all but a buttery slice of sunlight glancing off the side of a building. This crucial vertical, in middle distance, is echoed by another in the foreground, a tall flue of similar color but lower intensity. Both uprights are echoed by a prominent pair of chimneys in the distance.

This use of a center plumb line as an ordering device was put to fine effect by the British painter Euan Uglow, with whom Dubrow shares both passion for craft and a singular refinement. West Side Highway is a deft performance. It brings to mind the essence of the painter's vocation: the call to master all that one's art brings into play.

Dubrow's possession of his art is fully evident in his portraits. The agitation of his paint surface belies the tenderness and psychological depth of these paintings. His portrait of Frederick Wiseman, in solitude amidst his film cans, is deeply appealing. So, too, is the face of Dubrow's model, Josie. His self-portrait is a dynamic confrontation with his own powers of concentration. Each of these paintings is touched with a beauty that does not come from paint alone. Likeness itself is of no particular interest. Only when it becomes a vehicle for some indwelling truth behind the features does it gain value. In short, when it becomes more than a picture. Dubrow has that quality of empathy that marks the divide between facile verisimilitude and great art.

When the pressures of picture-making supersede that empathy the result disappoints. Interior, a snapshot of riders in a subway car, is a dull painting, unrelieved even by the burst of pure yellow at its center. Prince and Broadway is laudable for its obvious competence and is certainly imposing. But it impresses in the way that heavy machinery does: by its sheer weight. Yet it seems a mechanical exercise. No mattress of paint can subdue the photo underneath. In both paintings, the initial snapshot rises to the surface as an irritant—like the pea beneath layers of featherbed in the old fairy tale of the princess and the pea. This is the danger of facility: it can distract an artist from his real gifts, leaving him a mechanic of his own style.

But these considerations pale beside the achievement on view in this exhibition.

There are two showstoppers here. One is a stunning panorama of Jerusalem, all yellows and greens in an infinite multiplicity of tones. The other—thematically adventurous and a challenge to art world pieties—is a biblical scene, Rephidim. Both are breathtaking. They cry for discussion, not as two disparate paintings but as works that exist in antiphonal relation to each other. Unaccountably, they are hung in separate rooms. Jerusalem is displayed as one cityscape among others. Rephidim is treated as an anomalous "religious painting." Yet it is neither eccentric nor narrowly religious. It is, in essence, a history painting intimately bound to Dubrow's paintings of Israel.

The title derives from Exodus which describes the battle between the tribes of Israel and the followers of Amalek. Grandson of Esau, who hated his brother Jacob and all his progeny, Amalek allied with other nations to attack the Israelites. A terrorist, he struck from the rear in surprise attack, assaulting the weakest trailing behind. (The battle site, Rephidim, is thought to be Wadi Refayed, some miles west of Mt. Sinai.)

According to the story, Moses watches the battle from a hill, with the rod-of-God in his hand. If he keeps his arms raised heavenward, Israel will prevail. If he lowers them, Amalek will rise. But Moses is aged and tired. Aaron and Hur bring him a rock to sit on and keep his hands steady until sunset. Joshua leads the Israelites to victory.

Dubrow's imagining of the scene is incandescent in its loveliness. The canvas shimmers, quivering with the tension of the scene, the heat of the desert sun and the vitality—fury—of Dubrow's painting methods. Light is as much the subject here as the biblical anecdote. Individual forms on which it falls are less important than the light itself. Details are more felt than seen. Outlines tremble. Small forms are subsumed into the impasto, intensifying the effect of radiant energy.

Dubrow adjusts his color chords with great delicacy. Sobriety of form is rendered in a riot of tonal subtlety. Meticulous adjustment of color to value combined with the harmony of half-tones lends poetry to an image that, in lesser hands, could sink into costume epic. Dubrow risked real peril with this painting. The hazard of historical narrative is only one of them.

Specific religious dimension is muted by omitting the rod from Moses' grasp. But the attitude of supplication remains. To refer to the painting, as the catalogue does, in terms of Titian or Poussin is to muffle the impact, silence its meaning. This is not an occupational homage in the spirit of Uglow's tributes to Poussin. Moses' intercessory posture, an unmistakable prayer for victory, beckons to us from this particular moment in history. As epilogue to Dubrow's Israeli suite, Rephidim reverberates with assertions of Israel's legitimacy and its people's claim on Jerusalem. It also stands as a coded reminder of the comment, eloquent in the wake of 9/11: "We are all Israelis now."

Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 20 E. 79th St., New York NY 10021, Tel. 212.879.6606. This essay appears also on Art Critical.


WHAT IS THE POINT OF MEL RAMOS these days? The prankster pose of geriatric Popsters is as embarrassing in art as in life. We are all expected to grow up at some point. That does not mean we stop playing. Just that we refine our games and play for different stakes. But Ramos, like an elderly womanizer anxious to assert his ascendancy over Viagra, is still tickling brisket. Still shooting for the same low-camp buzz. Still tacky after all these years.

La Grande Jatte
Mel Ramos, The Transfiguration of Galatea #6, 2003

His current show is called "The Lost Paintings of 1965." The title is an admission that Ramos knows the retro facetiousness of the exercise. And why not? It is okay to recycle your own clichés so long as you deliver them tongue-in-cheek. Nowadays, irony is the universal solvent for changing banalities into gold. The nudge-and-wink brand of male fantasy is back on show with hefty price tags to guarantee its status as ART.

Ramos grinds the myth of Galatea through Animal House where the classical nude is exposed as this month's Playbunny. His transmogrifying statues, morphing from gray sculptor's stone into lurid flesh, all emerge as down-market pin-ups. Each one has the pout of some recognizable pop-culture vacancy in lip-gloss. Just so you know that Ramos knows this is farce. Wink, wink.

As a stunt for a frat house fund-raiser, this and some Pabst Blue Ribbon could be fun. But on sale as a fixed asset the work looks more like a come-on for boobus Americanus vulgaris. Ramos teases the species with a peep show of smaller paintings as warm-up for the classy jobs with the Greek theme. A high-rumped tart bursts from an Almond Joy wrapper. A languid blond lies prone along the length of—can you guess?—a cigar. There's the coy nymph on a clam shell (more class, eh, Sandro?). Another one, no virgo intacta she, is . … Never mind. Don't ask.

Who would want to live with this stuff? Where to put it? In the foyer of a maison de tolérance? Over the tinsel-baroque bed of Qusay Hussein? Upstairs in the frat house? Venues dwindle down to a precious few as hoary-headed hipsters from the 60's begin to gaze away from their Harleys to joint replacements and aluminum walkers.

It has been a long time since the Playboy phenomenon raised eyebrows. Or anything else. Longer still since the sultry New Woman of suggestive cigarette ads from the 20's and 30's turned into the mildly erotic pin-up of the 40's. By now, these soft-core antiques, supplanted by internet porn, have acquired poignancy with age. Add to this recent Oval Office lessons in artful maneuvers with cigars. Next to a semen-stained dress on the presidential seal, pin-ups—traditional solace of American GI's—look quaint.

There is nothing left to leer at. In the end, the mechanical silliness of these anachronisms seems more senescent than foxy. The polar opposite of hip.

Bernaducci-Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th St., New York 10019, Tel. 212.593.3757

May, 2003

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