Hamlett Dobbins has got to be the busiest guy and best juggler in the art community. He teaches at multiple institutions, paints avidly, exhibits his work, and serves as curator for both Delta Axis and the Clough-Hanson Gallery. On his plate now are two group shows and the opening of his own eye-popper at Second Floor Contemporary. Recently Dobbins found time to chat about the finer points of functioning as both artist and curator -- and how the two vocations spill over into each another.
Days prior, a conversation I was having with a friend about Dobbins' curatorial bent prompted a contrast between the visceral nature of Dobbins' pictures -- described as "pure painting" by my companion -- and the often ironic and conceptually driven Delta Axis exhibits. The trio of Dobbins' efforts now on view -- "The Omaha Paintings" at Second Floor Contemporary, "Provenance" at Delta Axis, and "Almost Giddy" at Clough-Hanson -- illustrates this polarity.
"The Omaha Paintings" are the result of Dobbins' residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Nebraska last fall. Chunky outlines determine abstract or semi-figurative forms. This work is bold and brash, pigment laid on like cake frosting, even if the neutralized and earthy palette is downright solemn compared to his trademark sea of pink.
By comparison, the theme of the Dobbins-curated "Provenance," at Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts, is place, with literal qualities emphasized above all others. For instance, Bill Rowe of Jonesboro seems to get a lot of joy out of appropriating the cheesy objects and attributes of blue-collar culture, as in Eat More Fish, a neon sign of the popular admonition during the Second World War. And the last time I saw the work of photographer Maxine Payne Caufield of Conway, Arkansas, it was an installation in the back of an antiquated King Biscuit flour truck she was driving across the country. Continuing in that cornpone vein, her large photographs of rural folk are crudely sewn to a background of yellowed checks from a bygone era. The distinction between the sardonic narratives displayed in works such as these against Dobbins' intuitive approach to painting and its precognitive impact is what my perceptive friend was alluding to.
Of course, in Dobbins' mind there is no conflict between his varied roles, suggesting that all is not as it first appears on the surface. While his paintings seem to focus on the formal relationships of form and color, they are in fact initiated by and memorialize personal experiences. Dobbins' impressive Happier with Dreams is a case in point. It appears to ambiguously depict a curtain hanging from a rod, but who knows? What I find appealing is how it unapologetically embraces his long admiration for the paintings of Phillip Guston even as it asserts his own particular style. For Dobbins, however, making pictures is an attempt to hold a moment in time.
On the flip side, the artist balks at the suggestion that his curatorial efforts have been biased toward solely ideologically driven work. He mentions the sketchbook show, which was held earlier this year at Delta Axis, as truly relevant to the importance he himself places on keeping a journal of images and ideas, and in my opinion, one of his best efforts yet. Speaking of the sketchbook show, Gelsy Verna, who participated in that show with some Guston-esque drawings of her own, makes a return appearance in "Provenance." Her caricatures carry none of the obvious narrative of other works in the show and might also reflect Dobbins' attempt to balance form and content.
Perhaps the perception that Delta Axis shows have been dryly ideological stems from the very nature of group exhibits, in which themes are built around the most obviously shared characteristics of disparate artists' works. Dobbins says that affairs like the sketchbook show are easy because the theme is so general. Otherwise, his organizing an exhibit involves the recognition of common traits among all the works he comes into contact with and from there determining salient themes. However, how a particular theme relates to the viewing public is of prime importance.
Dobbins' second exhibit at Rhodes' Clough-Hanson is apparently the perfect marriage of his vocations. "Almost Giddy: Optimism in Contemporary Abstraction" is a theme nearer to his own painting and perhaps a breath of fresh air during these dark days. He states that, compared to the difficult and "angsty" work of the '80s and early '90s, abstraction is more celebratory these days, distinguished by stimulating palettes and the influence of Japanese anime. One artist that Dobbins is especially psyched about is Kellie Murphy, whom he met at the Bemis and who is exhibiting "goofy" paint spills fabricated from vinyl in "funky colors." Sounds like light-hearted fun.
"Omaha Paintings" at Second Floor Contemporary through October 21st; "Provenance" at Marshall Arts through November 2nd; "Almost Giddy" at Clough-Hanson Gallery on the Rhodes College campus through October 25th.