San Jose Museum of Art
photo: John Hazeltine
San Jose, CA
The following essay is reprinted from the exhibition catalogue Urban Invasion published by the San Jose Museum of Art and accompanys Urban Invasion: Chester Arnold and James Doolin, an exhibition featured at the Museum from July 28 to October 14, 2001. The essay is reprinted with permission of the San Jose Museum of Art.
James Doolin's Illusionistic Vision
By Patricia Hickson
Early in his career as an abstract artist James Doolin ceased subscribing to modernism's denial of beauty. Later, he doggedly pursued his own vision as an illusionistic landscape painter, an avenue modernist artists considered irrelevant in comparison to their higher concerns. More recently, Doolin was elated upon reading Dave Hickey's 1993 publication, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. At last, it was once again acceptable to pursue beauty in art. Throughout his forty-year career, Doolin has always sought to evoke visual pleasure, in spite of art world taboos. His subject matter and analytical approach have remained constant, even if his methods have not. Throughout the phases of his career - from the geometric and then ethereal Artificial Landscapes, to the visionary Desert Landscapes and, finally, to the dramatic Urban Landscapes - it is clear that Doolin sees very deeply, uncovering profound beauty where one least expects to discover it.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1932, James Doolin was the first of two sons born to native Vermonters Lawrence Doolin and Ruth Blodgett Doolin, a successful insurance man and a homemaker, respectively. When James was seven, his father's job took the family to the suburbs of Philadelphia, an environment he found "monotonous" and "repressive" to the creative mind.
Summers, however were spent at picturesque Lake Champlain in northern Vermont at summer camp and at his grandparents' farm on a small island there. In this New England setting, he was awed by the lush, pastoral surroundings and intuitively learned about the natural landscape. He counts those summers as the happiest memories of his childhood.
During his grade school years, when the United States was drawn into World War II, James was fixated on images of war - soldiers, tanks, fighter planes, battle scenes. As his drawings of aerial dogfights became more complicated compositionally, he faced the timeless challenge of presenting three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. Although only nine or ten years old, James worked through the foreshortening issues of the planes' wing positions and mastered the principles of perspective. Perspectival complexity is a major motif of the artist's work to this day.
Another theme of Doolin's work that has carried through from childhood to the present day is the notion of menace. In addition to the combat drawings, he continued in his teenage years to explore the subject of threat in comic strips. He was particularly drawn to serious crime and detective stories involving kidnapping, extortion, and violence. At this time, having won several art prizes, he was interested in becoming a professional cartoonist.
Doolin's father asked his son what he might want to be when he grew up. The reply "maybe an artist" did not please his father and was discouraged if not dismissed. His father set out to nurture the young businessman in his son, bringing Jim into the office to work on a sales pitch to sell maple syrup to the insurance company staff. His resounding success (after all, the buyers were his father's employees) naturally led him to the streets, where his enterprise did not fare so well. Consequently, he was convinced that business was not a career for him.
In 1950, Doolin was headed to the University of Vermont with the intention of taking a liberal arts course and some art classes when his teacher encouraged him to apply to Philadelphia's University of the Arts. Much to his surprise, was awarded a full scholarship to attend. He accepted the invitation and was relieved when his father did not protest.
The summer before Doolin began college, the family took a westward cross-country trip to the Rocky Mountains. A spectacular new world unfolded before him. The astounding scale of the western landscape with its vast prairies, infinite valleys, and enormous mountains bore no resemblance to the eastern landscapes of northern Vermont and suburban Philadelphia. From this trip, an endless fascination with diverse landscapes and a lifelong desire to travel and see the world was born. In fact, upon the family's return to Philadelphia, Doolin immediately continued his travels alone, hitchhiking to Chicago that same summer. The following two summers, between academic years, Doolin hitchhiked to California, where he absorbed the natural landscape of Yosemite National Park one summer and the urban landscape of San Francisco the next. Holed up in a cheap hotel in the seedy Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Doolin characterized his environs as "Hopperish" in an intense painting he made of his austere room.
Doolin's education at University of the Arts, primarily a commercial art school, provided him with a strong foundation and a new attitude about the value of art. The curriculum included varied areas of study, including drawing, illustration, color and design, painting, lettering, printmaking and the history of art. Doolin also credits the institution with encouraging students to develop their own personal style, a mission he took to heart.
Soon after art school, in 1954, Doolin married Patricia Clark, whom he first met at the age of fifteen at summer camp in Vermont. The following year, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, trained as a stenographer, and was shipped to Germany for eighteen months. His train trip through post-war Germany's battered cities and beautiful countryside to the Army headquarters in Heidelberg was a thrilling first taste of an older and very different world.
In Heidelberg he was assigned to a psychological warfare office and had enough time to explore the city. Subsequently, he took full advantage of his passion for travel with frequent furloughs and three-day passes. Doolin and his wife traveled to France, Holland, England, Italy, and through most of Germany. In particular, a major Van Gogh exhibition at Munich's Haus der Kunst and early Renaissance painting from Florence's Uffizi Galleries moved the artist. This experience of art, different cultures, and the landscape of Europe was nothing short of exhilarating and left him wanting more.
In 1957, Doolin was discharged from the army. He moved to New York - alone, as his marriage had come apart in Europe. For the next four years, he worked as a freelance commercial artist in advertising to pay the bills and created his own art in the little time left over. New York, with all its cultural attributes - museums, galleries, theater, and music - was an inspiring, creative environment for him, and he made friends with a few serious but unknown artists. Abstract Expressionism dominated the New York art scene at this time. However, Doolin, newly divorced and feeling dismissed as an artist due to his commercial work, went through a very difficult period during which he felt himself blocked from becoming a serious artist.
Unhappy with his situation, Doolin took actioin. He worked overtime on his commercial work and saved enough money for a long-term trip to Europe in 1961. After taking a ship to Scandinavia, Doolin spent the next five months looking intently at art throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and finally Greece. He was an artist in search of his own vision and the best way to express it. The work of Dutch and Italian Renaissance painters, as well as contemporary abstract painters, had a major impact on him.
In Greece, Doolin landed on the island of Rhodes, and rented a small house, where he painted with a new resolve. Expressionistic and primitive iconlike heads, reminiscent of Paul Klee, dominate the canvases of this period. Influenced by ancient mosaics encountered in Turkey, Spain, Greece, and most specifically, Ravenna, Italy, they were painted in a bright, hot palette of yellows and reds, the faces surrounded by jewel-like patterning. The frontal structure and flattened space of these small paintings would strongly influence his future work.
While on Rhodes, Doolin met Leslie Edwards, a young Australian woman on an around-the-world tour. After living together for six months, they were married in Athens in 1962. They returned to New York at the end of the same year. Doolin, newly energized by his marriage and his European experience, was now "fiercely determined to be a painter."
Back in New York, the couple settled into an apartment on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The art scene had changed immensely in the eighteen months that Doolin had been abroad. Pop Art and Hard-Edge Painting now commanded the spotlight. Doolin again worked as a freelance commercial artist, but made time to paint. Feeling an affinity with the work of Al Held and other Hard-Edge painters, Doolin began working on a group of geometric abstract paintings that would become known as Artificial Landscapes.
Named for their subject matter, the Artificial Landscapes referred to the man-made environment as opposed to the natural landscape, and related directly to the streetscapes of his New York neighborhood - road signs, building walls, darkened doorways, and billboards from the semi-industrial area close to the docks. Doolin documented this territory in photographs, from which he pulled the forms and images that compose the paintings.
Compositionally, the canvases were often divided horizontally and compartmentalized into blocks of geometric patterns to reflect the flat, bold forms within the urban landscape. Rendered in harsh, inorganic colors absent from nature - black, gray, white, red, yellow, and lurid industrial greens, along with a variety of pastels and metallic colors - the artificiality of the images is heightened.
In an artist's statement from 1967, Doolin discusses the work:
At last, Doolin had developed a vision all his own. In addition, he had secured a part-time position as an art instructor, another important step in moving from commercial artist to serious painter. Even better, several of his Artificial Landscapes were included in a 1964 group show at Seth Siegelaub Gallery in New York.
Life as an artist in New York would have been tough enough alone, and by 1965, the Doolins had two young sons, Matthew and Paul, to consider in addition to themselves. Leslie suggested that they move to her hometown of Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia and one with a strong art community. They packed up the Volkswagen bus and made a two-month cross-country trip via Mexico to San Francisco, where they boarded a ship to Australia.
Settling in Melbourne, Doolin accepted a teaching position at Prahran College of Advanced Education, an art trade school where he had a very full schedule, working five-and-a-half days a week. He continued to cultivate his Artificial Landscapes with new and different visual material - the city of Melbourne. Utilizing the same New York approach, Doolin painted additional works that reflected the color and shapes of the Australian cityscape.
Doolin recalls that exterior acrylic paints were new to the market, and their bright and wild 1960s color combinations were reflected in the city's buildings. In particular, a city hall in one of Melbourne's boroughs was painted bright pink with alternating black and white stairs in front - the perfect basis for an Artificial Landscape.
In 1966, Doolin secured his first solo exhibition of Artificial Landscapes at Gallery A in Melbourne. In a provincial city focused on an "expressive figurative tradition," neither the community nor the critics responded favorably to the work which reflected the New York aesthetic. Sydney, however, was rooted in a "long modernist tradition." At that time, several Australian artists were returning to the city after working abroad in both New York and Europe where abstraction was in vogue. In search of a venue, Doolin traveled to Sydney, where he proposed an exhibition with another branch of Gallery A. When they turned him down flatly, he tried another gallery. The word got back to Melbourne that "Doolin is on the prowl." That was the end of Gallery A and the beginning of a relationship with Sydney's Central Street Gallery.
Tony McGillick of Central Street Gallery had responded favorably to the work and came to visit Doolin in Melbourne about six months later, ready to do a show. By that time, the Doolins had plans to move back to the United States. The artist had applied to the University of California in Los Angeles to earn his MFA, thinking that he needed more credentials to earn a better teaching position. Although he had not yet been accepted into the program, he was prepared to move. Nevertheless, he committed himself to having the show. The 1967 Central Street Gallery show in Sydney of Doolin's Artificial Landscapes was an encouraging success. By the artist's own account, four out of five reviews were positive and four paintings were sold. Soon after the exhibition, the Doolins moved to Los Angeles.
Doolin soon was accepted to the University of California,, with his graduate education subsidized by the G.I. Bill and a teaching assistantship. At 35 years of age, he was the oldest student in the program and married with a family, mentally removed from his younger counterparts. But Doolin threw himself into his work and absorbed as much as possible from fellow students and the esteemed faculty - James Weeks, William Brice, Charles Garabedian, Llyn Foulkes, and Richard Diebenkorn. Doolin most enjoyed his one-on-one meetings in the studio with Richard Diebenkorn, whom he fondly recalls as being "cordial, respectful, and honest in his criticism." He became a great mentor and friend.
At UCLA, Doolin continued with his Artificial Landscapes. Responding to the light and atmosphere of Los Angeles, the paintings became softer and more luminescent. In 1968, he was invited to participate in a major inaugural exhibition, The Field, at the new National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
He sent three new paintings which were strongly praised by several critics, and acquired by Australia's three major art museums.
In 1969, Doolin began working on a new series of Artificial Landscapes that were very different from the previous one. The identically shaped and sized canvases, known as the Arch Series to differentiate them from the previous Artificial Landscapes, are luminous and ethereal, and employ a minimalist aesthetic. One painting is best described by Australian art critic Elwyn Lynn: "A floral or phallic stamen in iridescent, mainly prismatic colors, imperceptibly and illusionistically melted into one another in shifting clouds, juts into all the painting, meeting a similarly graduated area with a crisp edge; so crisp that sometimes the central area sinks giddily away and sometimes leaps forth."
Pure color, in the form of energy, is the most important element in these paintings, which seem to embody a "weird power." The artist utilized a wide variety of spray devices to make the color and tonal transitions look effortless, and to create what he called "an illusory object-window." The canvases are stretched onto thinner stretcher bars than the previous Artificial Landscapes.
In 1970, Doolin was contacted by Central Street Gallery in Sydney to do a second show. He sent nine of the new Artificial Landscapes, but did not make the trip to the exhibition. Before long, he was receiving telegrams imploring, "Send more paintings!" The show had sold out even before it opened. Doolin addressed the paintings' meaning in the exhibition brochure: "To all questions as to whether they are 'supposed to be' architectural, religious or sexual, metaphysical, ritualistic, floral, phallic, hard edge or colour field, mechanical or sensual, solid or atmospherical, ancient or modern, spatial or flat, cold or warm, calm or intense, the answer is yes."
In response to this statement, Sydney art critic G.R. Lansell wrote: "Not only are they supposed to be all that, they are actually everything they are supposed to be - an extraordinary conjunction of classicism and romanticism - to add another polarity to Doolin's list. They are first-class. The critic is stunned by their incandescence.... Criticism is superfluous here."
In addition to being a financial and critical success, this gallery show secured Doolin a place in Australian art history, an amazing feat considering his brief, two-year residence in the country. While there in the mid 1960s, Doolin had influenced some young Melbourne artists, including Robert Jacks, Dale Hickey, and Robert Rooney, who carried on his tradition of Color Field and Hard-Edge painting with a minimalist sensibility. Doolin also had credibility. No one else worked as in-depth as he, with his paintings succeeding on multiple levels - surface, composition, content. As well, he had professionalism - a real work ethic - that trickled all the way down to perfectly stretching and preparing each canvas.
Doolin, in Los Angeles, had already moved away from abstract painting and into representational work. Beginning to feel too limited by abstraction, he found himself following a strong desire to make more "traditional" illusionistic paintings from direct observation. Despite the success of the recent show in Sydney, there was no turning back. Ever the maverick, his stubborn restlessness would resurface throughout his career.
Doolin graduated from the University of California in 1971, having spent the last two years there in search of a new vision, which was just beginning to emerge. He was painting illusionistically - observed reality, dreams, fantasies, and memories - and was more prolific than ever. In his MFA show, he insisted upon facing off an Artificial Landscape from the Arch Series with a visionary landscape to suggest the connection between the abstract and new representational work. Its reception is best articulated in the words of Les Biller, one of the faculty artists who sat on Doolin's graduate committee: "Well, Jim, you came in as a professional and you're leaving as a student." Doolin still prizes both the humor and the truth of those words and trusts he will always be a professional who continues to learn.
Nonetheless, Doolin was hired to teach at the university the following year and continued his pursuit of meaningful, illusionistic painting. He needed to do something big, both physically and figuratively, to make his mark. Photorealism and Conceptualism were the fashionable art movements of the day. Both inform Doolin's epic, conceptual Shopping Mall painting, from its mundane subject matter to its basis in the idea. Originally envisioned in 1972 and begun in 1973, it would not be completed until 1977. Doolin thought the actual painting would take a year; instead it took four. The idea was to create an aerial view of an real intersection in which there would be multiple dramas with every object treated with equal importance and clarity.
Doolin set out to find his subject and selected the Santa Monica Mall at the intersection of Arizona Avenue and Third Street. The setting provided a high concentration of diverse people, accessibility to adjacent rooftops, and a strong theatrical component; it was also a place where he could retain his anonymity.
For the ambitious project, Doolin began at Santa Monica City Hall, where he acquired detailed maps of the area and architectural blueprints. Next, he drafted axonometric drawings of different parts of the Mall. Finally, he determined the composition - an "X" layout. More studies and drawings followed, as well as numerous slides and photographs of the area. Doolin created a smaller lithograph of the preliminary composition and determined the position of the shadows for the work. This was followed by a full-size pencil drawing. On the large square canvas Doolin drew the people, buildings, and objects he had sketches and filmed around the mall. He then painted a final study of the entire composition at one-fifth its actual size. Before painting on the large canvas, he chartered a helicopter to fly over the area for a final check on the shadows for the specific, yet random, time and date selected - 4:36 p.m. on the Saturday before Easter, 1974. On this mission, he was accompanied by Richard Diebenkorn, who also loved aerial views.
From September 1974 to January of 1977, Doolin painted the ninety-by-ninety inch canvas. He started in the upper left-hand corner and worked his way across the top, down the right side, across the bottom, and down the left side. Finally, he spiraled inward to the center. Thinking that his painting skills would improve during this time, the artist naturally wanted his best painting at the center of the canvas.
In fact, the artist placed himself at the center of the canvas, in the middle of the intersection, with his clipboard and drawings in hand.
Generally speaking, and for this specific motif, Doolin is continually inspired by Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1480), a magical landscape with the awestruck saint at its center. Bellini's composition is filled with extraordinary and equally rendered details, revealing the painter's love of his subject, much like Doolin's. However, Doolin's use of axonometric perspective, a system used by architects and engineers for civic planning, takes Bellini's technique a step further. In addition to the same level of importance applied to every object, as did Bellini, Doolin puts everything on the same scale. Every figure is approximately one inch tall, and throughout the composition, one inch equals five feet. Not initally evident, this system makes every part of the painting equidistant from the viewer.
In effect, Doolin created a meticulously reconstructed space - another artificial landscape - that begged to be looked at. From a distance, it is quite abstract. Upon approach it reveals an omnipotent, god-like perspective. Up close, the viewer falls into the composition, and the infinite narratives of its 365 figures unfold. Ordinary events begin to appear extraordinary. Another visual conglomeration, Children's Games 1560, by the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel, influenced Doolin's Shopping Mall. Brueghel's active village scene of peasants engrossed in separate activities and games is a highly organized space. Although the composition is filled edge to edge with hundreds of characters in motion, each figure and event is utterly clear. Doolin's space is treated similarly.
Shopping Mall was the focus of a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park in 1977. Subtitled The Anatomy of a Painting, the show included all of the sketchbooks, oil studies, lithographs, models, slides, photographs and films that preoccupied four years of the artist's life. The exhibition received enthusiastic reviews from the press, and Doolin was thrilled to have his first Los Angeles solo exhibition. In 1978, the Shopping Mall painting and ephemera went on to a national tour of Australia, traveling from Melbourne to six other Australian cities.
Once this ambitious undertaking was completed, Doolin realized that his marriage had suffered irreparably. With a divorce imminent, he moved to a loft in downtown Los Angeles, where he began making "cartoon-like fantasy paintings," which he has never exhibited. In 1980 Doolin received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and was also awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship on the strength of slides documenting the Shopping Mall project. His proposal for the fellowship was brief: "Landscape, both urban and natural has always been a primary source in my work. After twelve years in Southern California, it is now time for me to make some major work about the desert." And that is what he did.
"I am a loner, and I wanted to test that. It turned out to be very rewarding, my happiest period." To clear his head, Doolin moved to a cabin in a remote area in the northern Mojave Desert, where he lived very simply and in virtual isolation for three years. The austere beauty of the desert had fascinated him since his hitchhiking trips west in the 1950s. Here he studied the desert landscape as intently as he had the Santa Monica Mall.
Compared to his previous experience with the landscapes of northern Vermont and urban areas, the desert revealed exotic and elemental qualities. With a clear view of many miles in all directions, Doolin felt in control of his space. Initially, he sketched and created small paintings of the desert landscape en plein air. It was not practical to make large-scale paintings in the wind, harsh light, heat, and cold of the desert, so for the first two years he made small-scale paintings from direct observation. Often working in the shade, the artist discovered an abundance of color in the shadows, which sharply contrasted with the light-saturated hues in direct sunlight.
Gray gravel would appear green in the shade of bright pink sunlit rocks. The illusionistic painter heightened these magical color relationships in the paintings, resulting in otherworldly, fantasy-like visions.
At the beginning of his third year in the desert, Doolin began making very large paintings in his cabin. In addition to the all-important light and color, Doolin concentrated on dynamic compositions that emphasized the dramatic violence of geological change. For the large paintings, where he was working from studies and photographs, the relationship between forms was crucial and he reorganized the components into a highly structured, theatrical space. He has stated: "I strive to make my paintings strong on the abstract level, clear on the descriptive level, and mysterious on the narrative level so that viewers can make up their own stories and symbols."
In the prophetically named Last Chance Canyon nearby, Doolin conceived Last Painter on Earth, 1983, a ten-foot wide dramatic and existential work questioning his survival as an artist. A self-portrait of the solitary artist in an elongated, afternoon shadow stretches across the menacing, alien landscape, which undulates with exaggerated sharp and curvilinear forms, reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton. Strong color is applied throughout. Like the Bellini painting, Doolin treats the foreground and distant elements with equal importance, animating the entire canvas. This is the painting that he went to the desert to paint.
Doolin returned to Los Angeles in 1983 with a fellow painter Lauren Richardson, who had spent the last year with him in the desert. He was armed with nine large desert paintings and about 50 smaller paintings done over the three-year period. He became an art instructor at Santa Monica College.
By a stroke of luck, he met up with Ellie Blankfort, an advisor for a new Los Angeles art gallery, the Koplin Gallery. Although landscape painting was far from au courant in 1984, Marti and Alan Koplin loved the desert paintings and Doolin secured his first exhibition in Los Angeles since 1977.
James Doolin: Desert Paintings was both a popular and critical success, with reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Artweek, and Art in America. In Artweek, Stephen Grossman commented: "Doolin's painting...is the result of his intention to convey the tension and wonder one feels in the desert - to convey it not only through the images, but through the quality of the paint and the whole structure of the pictures. Style, at its best, follows intention. In Doolin's desert paintings, a sound union exists between style and intention and between the artist's vision and the way in which we read these paintings."
Doolin, far removed from his desert environs in a downtown Los Angeles loft, adapted his creative approach from the desert series to tackle the urban landscape. After all, he had always painted his immediate surroundings. His studio was located in a semi-industrial area of downtown Los Angeles, brimming with strong visual material. In the alley behind the studio, there was a power plant and a view of the top of the Los Angeles City Hall. At night, the scene was spatially enhanced by different zones of light - green mercury light in the alley, orange sodium light behind the plant, and white tungsten light in the distance. One of the earliest large paintings from this period, Form Vs. Content, 1985, depicts this interesting and threatening scene. All of the hallmarks of Doolin's desert paintings prevail - heightened color, intense light, highly structured composition, attention to detail, and implied narrative. Although the title seemingly refers to Doolin's artistic ethos, it in fact was drawn directly from the graffiti scrawled on the right-hand wall.
Down Town, 1985, and Oasis, 1985-86, depict the same local taco stand, visible from Doolin's studio window by day and by night, respectively. Reminiscent of Brueghel, the artist presents a bird's-eye view of the cast of characters, who pass through the intersection or gather at the stand.
Some of the same neighborhood inhabitants make appearances in both works - the heavy man at the counter during the day is the cross dresser at night and the same homeless man stands at the center of each canvas, like a lost prophet. As with Shopping Mall (1973-77), the paintings contain multiple narratives, as well as the artist himself. Doolin depicts himself in Down Town as the briefcase carrying professional in the shadow of the foreground - the business man he never became.
For Highway Patrol (1986), Doolin took to the freeway, a key source of ideas for more than a decade to come. An important work about light and space, it makes use of an interior/exterior device that exists in many of Doolin's canvases. In Highway Patrol, the urban exterior is seen through the interior of a patrol car. Impending danger is suggested throughout - the headlights in the rearview mirror, the rifle propped against the dashboard, and a seemingly endless line-up of anonymous motorists.
These early urban paintings were featured in Doolin's second successful show at the Koplin Gallery in October of 1986. They were the beginnings of a larger group of paintings that depict Los Angeles as a "populated urban badlands." Over the years that have followed, Doolin has become best known for his cityscapes.
The 1986 exhibition was followed by a very busy time - two large commissions, a third grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an artist residency at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. In 1988, Doolin and Lauren Richardson, who had married in 1985, traveled to Europe for three months to look again at the art that had inspired them both. For Doolin it was a time for reevaluation and change; in the years that followed his paintings became more complex and intense, and more deeply connected to his feelings. They also required more time to create. In 1989, a daughter, Eve, was born. At the end of that year both of Doolin's parents died and a four month trip to Vermont was urgently needed.
Not until 1992 did Doolin exhibit his work again. Then, among the highlights of his third show at the Koplin Gallery were Bridges, 1989, and East Wind, 1991. Both were created specifically for group exhibitions at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. Bleak and all-encompassing concrete roadways provide a startling realization of the disappearing natural landscape, which is overwhelmed by hazy, colorless skies and heavy, gray architecture. Color exists primarily in the finish of the cars, unnatural and jewel-like against the drab background. In the foreground of each painting a sidewalk opens out, placing the viewer within the compositional space to secretly observe a solitary figure. Once again, the influence of Edward Hopper can be seen in the lonely and impersonal sprawling city. A master of light and space, Doolin has captured the enormity of the infinite, concrete landscape that is Los Angeles.
In a well-received solo show in 1993 at University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, a wide selection of Doolin's desert and urban landscape paintings were exhibited together for the first time. Although he had been creating both simultaneously for years, the connection between the two bodies of work has eluded his audience, who only see distinctly different styles and palettes.
Regardless of what is interpreted as "inconsistency" between the desert and urban landscapes, Doolin insists on moving between the two, to avoid being "cornered."
In 1994, Doolin responded to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority' s call for artists to create murals for their brand new headquarters building in downtown Los Angeles. Much to his surprise, he was selected as lead artist to collaborate with architects on the lobby art and interior design. After committing to do four of the six murals himself, Doolin selected two other artists to create the other murals - Patrick Nagatani and Margaret Nielsen.
An immense undertaking, Doolin's monumental murals, created in 1995-1996, depict the history and growth of the city of Los Angeles. He hired a helicopter to survey the area, research assistants to compile historic documentation, and studio assistants to prepare and underpaint the canvases.
Each aerial painting shows the landscape of the downtown area from a different year - 1870, 1910, 1960, and After 2000. In the transition from canvas to canvas, there is also a progression in the time of day (from morning to night), the seasons (from spring to fall), and a dramatic change in the palette (from grass greens and blues to bright yellows and deep purples). The transformation from the 1870 image to the post-2000 image of Los Angeles is nothing short of radical - from a single train crossing a lush orchard in the sunny countryside to a beautiful and ominous nightscape encrusted with strings of glowing jewels, in actuality the traffic-jammed freeways and illuminated skyscrapers.
Within Doolin's work, there is a tension between the beautiful and the troubling. This "seductive/destructive edge," at work in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority painting, After 2000, can be found in Twilight, 1999, a painting that hums visually and holds the viewer's gaze. It is imperative to look at and explore the works for extended periods of time to reveal the often-conflicting layers of meaning. Is the painting an ugly, congested freeway system, complete with pollution clouds, or is it a shimmering, flowing river in a fantasy? It is both.
In 1997-98, Doolin received an Individual Artist Grant and exhibition from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. In 1999, he was awarded the inaugural exhibition for the Grand Central Gallery at California State Fullerton; there he showed desert and urban landscapes painted between 1983 and 1998.
Some Los Angeles Icons, the title of Doolin's most recent solo show at the Koplin Gallery in 2000, created a buzz in the Los Angeles art scene. The self-proclaimed "maverick" had developed a sizable audience. The critical reviews were equally glowing, with Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight describing the exhibition as "swooning" and "engaging.Doolin's keen eye for observation and his skill with composition give gravity and weight to common and ephemeral experience....Doolin has a gift for endowing the everyday with a sense of estrangement. His best paintings embrace the mad beauty associated with cartoons, which makes their factual realism all the more astounding."
Doolin's Psychic, 1998, was a clear standout in the exhibition. At dusk, the neon-lit storefront of the psychic is reflected in the still-slick surface of the street after a rain. A curiously blank billboard hovers high above the block of stores against illusory orange and blue skies. The projected possibilities for that empty billboard are endless, particularly in the city of Los Angeles, a mecca for high hopes turned to bitter disappointment.
The exhibition title, Some Los Angeles Icons, considered the idea that Los Angeles has no single signature symbol of identification like San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. For Doolin, the massive, far-reaching freeway system is the obvious selection. He has explored this monument with a singular vision, like no one else. Where will those infinite roadways lead Doolin next? The possibilities are endless, but they will no doubt include color, light, and beauty.
This essay is copyrighted by the San Jose Museum of Art. The essay is
reprinted from the exhibition catalogue Urban Invasion published by the
San Jose Museum of Art. This 56-page four-color publication is available
from the San Jose Museum of Art Museum Store. The exhibition Urban Invasion
is organized by the San Jose Museum of Art and is on view from July 28 -
October 14, 2001.
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