“City Scenes and Portraits”: John Dubrow at the List Gallery

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

John Dubrow, the Marjorie Heilman Visiting Artist, gave a lecture last Thursday in LPAC Cinema. A show of his work, entitled “City Scenes and Portraits 2000-2007,” will be exhibited at the List Gallery in LPAC from now until November 4th.

marcfumaroli.jpgJohn Dubrow, Marc Fumaroli, oil on linen, 39x32in.
Photo: Paul Waldman Work courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art, NY

At last Thursday’s talk, Dubrow presented a slideshow of a selection of his works and noted crucial moments in his career. One such moment was his big break, a fairy tale fantasy of starving artists everywhere. It took place, he recounted, when, waiting tables for a living, he interrupted a dispute about art between two customers, disagreeing with both of them. They insisted that he show them his work when his shift was over, and when he did, one revealed that he was an art dealer and offered to subsidize Dubrow’s career as an artist. He went on to have a host of solo shows in New York City, to win the Carnegie and Truman Prizes and to sell a painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other achievements.

Andrea Packard, director of the List Gallery, cited Dubrow as “an artist whose process is filled with risk,” who is willing to “sacrifice a great painting in order to aspire to something truly authentic.”

From very early in the talk, it became clear just how big a role the process of art-making plays for Dubrow. It also became clear that his process is one that is particularly unique, magical, and, at times, excruciating.

For his large figure works, Dubrow spends a few weeks on location sketching from life in a park or a city street, before taking to his studio. From then on, he lets his artistic license take over, meticulously blocking out the canvas with figures from his sketches and his imagination. This blocking stage, a creation-through-destruction type approach, could be called the hallmark of Dubrow’s style. It involves an almost violent hashing and rehashing of composition, working and reworking the same scene for months or even years, often completely painting over perfectly good pieces in search of something completely new and original.

But with great risks come great rewards. Each of Dubrow’s “figure-scapes” is like a visual history of the labor that went into it, better for every shape and hint of color that lies buried just beneath the surface. It is as if layer upon layer of observations and perceptions of a scene have been compiled into one cohesive image that captures the quintessential and transient nature of the place.

For Dubrow, the challenge of finding something entirely new and genuine makes it all worth it. He described the process that he goes through with each painting as a soul-searching voyage, the destination of which is unknown to him until the bitter end.

“Most of the elements that end up working in my paintings I get to by going to the edge of what you can take as a person,” he said. “I’ll get so frustrated that I’ll pick up a palette knife and smear paint across the canvas, and in that moment, I’ll find something in the paint that will unlock everything… It brings me to a place that I didn’t know existed.”

With their large blocks of muted color and their bold use of light and movement, Dubrow’s works are as appealing to look at as they are gloriously expansive. Standing in the List Gallery in front of one of Dubrow’s cityscapes, one can easily get lost in the vibrant atmospheres of New York, Paris, or Tel Aviv. Studio and office portraits are also on display for less adventurous types.

List Gallery hours are 12 to 5pm Tuesday through Sunday.