In her first solo show at the dealership, curated by Liz Alderman, Jenny Dubnau’s series of large scale portraits is as impressive as any serious or well known figurative painter working today.
Although Dubnau’s paintings process relies heavily on its photographic sources, it seems that each painting is a deliberate act in that it is chosen by the artist to evoke a particular mood. And in spite of the unusual scale of the paintings, smaller than Chuck Close and bigger than Gerhardt Richter, Dubnau’s painterly brushwork succinctly corresponds to the proportion of the images.
There is also an aspect of metamorphosis, which shifts back and forth between the visual calm of the sitter and their physical details—like sweat, or facial flaws like cuts and pimples. Such are the elements that make these paintings compelling. In fact they are decisively more conceptual than they at first appear to be. In other words, Dubnau’s priority is to achieve a cohesive whole rather than to be seduced by the accidents of so-called painterly passages, which often occur during the process of painting.
One of the most powerful forces to be reckoned with in the figurative tradition is Balthus. Everything about the figure has to change. We all know how marvelously he changed the art world, which favored cubism, surrealism and all kinds of experimental “isms”. It took a while for de Kooning and Bacon, and later Lucien Freud, to restore the legacy, which ultimately paved the way for younger artists like Jenny Saville, John Currin, and Lisa Yuksavage.
Now that the figure has a genuinely strong presence in the art world, one fears the young art students are too eager to assimilate the old masters’ technique with contemporary subject matter. For any need to accommodate novelty will always end up, as de Kooning referred to it as, “apologies of one’s own anxieties.” Nevertheless, new possibilities are endless and Dubnau’s commitment and energy is well invested.
The only thing I must confess to disliking are her gallery of portraits. Like many artists of this genre, it is a bit predictable to find the subject has always been self-portrait or portraits of their friends. With Dubnau’s intelligence and insights, I wonder if the artist has ever read Jean Genet’s famous essay “What if a painting of Rembrandt was torn into four equal pieces and flushed down the toilet” or if she knows the work of the great photographer Robert Bergman. Regardless of whether Dubnau will ever find the universal appeal, I am almost certain that Bergman’s sensibility will be a challenge to her growth. For the rest, we will have to wait and see.
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.