BY Carmine Iannaccone in Reviews | 05 MAY 00
Featured in
Issue 52

James Doolin

BY Carmine Iannaccone in Reviews | 05 MAY 00

The first thing you have to keep in mind when studying a painting by James Doolin is that there's no such thing as Realism in art. It's one of those terms that has been out of fashion for some time, and with good reason. The criteria for segregating what is real from what isn't tends to vanish under scrutiny, and the supposed distance or proximity of any representation from its subject is entirely relative. So what if you're an artist whose pictures happen to closely resemble the thing being observed? Unlike Realist schools of painting in the past, visual similitude for someone like Doolin becomes a point of departure, not just an accomplishment.

Audiences which expect contemporary art to break not only with tradition but also with the appearance of tradition may have trouble seeing beyond the obvious correspondence with reality in Doolin's views of the city. But despite its long pedigree and its dedicated courtship by so many technologies of reproduction, Realism is not, and never has been, resolved or perfected. Which is what continues to make it as viable and as difficult now for an artist as it ever was.

Doolin's work is about the way we see the city around us, but it's also about how these ways of seeing alter our relationship to that space in a more general way, how they mediate our interaction with it and how they help conceptualise what is and is not possible. The subject of his most recent paintings is urban space. Many of the pictures use dramatic points of view, most notably Twilight (1999), which places the viewer impossibly high in the air over a congested motorway intersection, and also Crossroads (1999), which plunks you right onto the pavement of that same road, with cars racing past on all sides - a vantage point one could only occupy at peril to your life.

With complete understatement, Doolin forces the viewer to reconcile several realities at once: that of the scenery you may recognise, the mechanisms (aeroplanes and cars) which offer views of that scenery, and the cameras the artist probably used to create studies for those views. Doolin shows how a photograph can bend massive concrete columns and horizon lines into the most improbable of curves. But when such impossibilities turn up in his paintings they are not only acceptable to viewers accustomed to the distorting effects of lenses, but appear as faithful renditions, and so, ironically, realistic.

The combined effect of all these optical paradigms is a persistent sense of estrangement from the scene at hand, the feeling of being very alone in a crowd. Many of the places represented would, in reality, be loud and cacophonous, so reducing them to the visual automatically creates a distance. It makes the realism feel oddly phoney, even though you can tell exactly which intersection is depicted in Underpass (1999), or which street corner in Bus Stop (1998).

Doolin pushes this paradox even further by stripping down many forms in the paintings in a sneaky kind of way that makes them feel generic, despite his overriding commitment to accuracy. This allows him to introduce details selectively, so that they pepper the work like flourishes which seem much more significant than they should: two cardboard boxes in the breakdown lane of a motorway; the precise shape of the porcelain insulators where power lines connect to a utility pole; the gridded pattern left on concrete by the wooden forms into which it was originally poured.

These gestures can make a viewer feel God-like. Sweeping panoramas of our highly engineered urban world are punctuated with bits of happenstance that are full of unintended, perhaps even unmerited, poignancy. It is exactly what it feels like to live in the city at times, but in Doolin's pictures one is reminded that such omniscience comes at a price. The more you can see, the less you're allowed to participate.