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Gambit Weekly Art and Obsession

By D. Eric Bookhardt

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  Art and obsession have long been linked, at least as far as public perceptions are concerned. Not that most obsessions are in any way artful -- far from it -- but the folklore of art and artists does seem a tad obsessive at times. We may recall the story of Michelangelo laboring mightily over the Sistine Chapel ceiling while sprawled flat on his back on a scaffold, or Van Gogh presenting a lady friend with the gift of his severed ear.

There are various theories about art and obsession, most of them having to do with the effort of holding a visual image in the mind for extended periods, possibly even months or years at a time. Actually, computer nerds are far more obsessive than most artists, but the effect is different somehow. We like to think of artists freezing in a garret while painting the face of an angel by candlelight -- not munching pizza at a desk strewn with cybergames and software. But the two pursuits might be listed under Marshall McLuhan's old maxim that "the medium is the message" (though not quite as McLuhan had intended). In both cases, the process becomes its own rationale, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've long regarded George Dunbar's work as obsessive, and his big new retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Mining the Surfaces, did nothing to change my mind. Comprising mostly his geometric metal leaf paintings, the show shimmers with an uncanny mix of medievalism and modernism. If it resonates obliquely enough to strike different people in different ways, few will fail to notice the single-minded consistency running through it all. In fact, Dunbar has done much the same sort of thing for more than 30 years now.


Dunbar's familiar cloverleaf design is evident in this untitled piece from 1997.

Coin du Lestin XXIX, 1996, is fairly typical, a symmetrical intersection of circles, crosses and triangulations rendered in gold leaf over red, purple and black clay. The effect is richly contemplative, evoking the symmetrical stained-glass rose windows that crown the peaks of gothic cathedrals. Beyond the Burgundian red and gold tone, however, the effect could almost be deco, or even techno, so precisely "machined" is its overall appearance.

Also on view are his more loosely realized (if equally iconic) sculptures as well as some earlier abstract expressionist-style paintings. Even so, the show fairly glints like Fort Knox with the luster of precious metals, and it might all seem eccentric were it not so sumptuously decorative. What goes on here? It helps to know something of the background.

The scion of a prominent local legal clan, Dunbar is a World War II veteran whose GI Bill enabled him to dispense with family precedent and study painting, not court cases, at the Tyler School of Art school in Philadelphia. He returned home to New Orleans to help launch the modernist movement (like Ida Kohlmeyer, he is a veteran of the seminal Orleans Gallery). He took to home-building to earn a living and is by now a dean of Northshore developers.

This may shed some light on the architectonic or structural qualities of these works -- some of which suggest the cloverleaf exchanges of interstate highways and such. We could almost say that Dunbar's paintings are more "constructed" than painted. Sumptuously aloof, they are cool, dispassionate mandalas for the contemplation of an elegant and orderly universe.

Obsessions of an equally meticulous if rather more personal sort are seen at Earth & Fire, where Franklin Adams' latest art now hangs. Well, you can't really wear this stuff, but you have to look twice just to make sure, so amazingly realistic is the technique.

Outfit (III) is fairly emblematic, a pleated tuxedo shirt hanging crisply if naturalistically on a clothes hanger. Rendered in smoke-toned monochrome watercolor, the pleated white fabric looks as pristinely atmospheric as one of Andrew Wyeth's sharply etched Pennsylvania landscapes -- an effect so precisely textural you almost feel it in your fingertips as you look at it. But the eye is soon distracted by a black silk bra hanging sensuously, decorously down and over the neatly pleated shirt front.

It is all too consciously arranged to suggest any haphazard aftermath of spontaneous passion, so we are left with intriguing contrasts: Victoria's Secret under a Gentry facade. Other images of more conventionally comported attire display to good effect Adams' near-renaissance draftsmanship. And, as with so many of Dunbar's creations, these seem almost to have been constructed as much as painted or drawn.

Adams uses his gift for precise realism to investigate the psychology of surfaces, the inner life behind outer appearances. Like Dunbar, he imposes his own obsessive kind of order upon the chaos of ordinary life.


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