Josh Dorman at Mary Ryan Gallery

Josh Dorman, Versus (2008), ink, acrylic and antique maps on panel, 34″ x 42″; courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery

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Squirreled away in the back room of Mary Ryan Gallery, you’ll find six small pencil drawings by Josh Dorman, teeming panoramas rendered in velvety chiaroscuro and imbued with obscured, apocalyptic portent.  Fans of Dorman’s signature work–kaleidoscopic amalgamations of vintage papers, outdated maps, scientific illustrations and finely delineated passages of acrylic paint–will recognize the strong element of fantasy and trans-historical settings.  But that’s not to say they’ll applaud the things.  If anything, the sampling of “straight” drawings proves how essential mixing media is to Dorman’s vision.

Notwithstanding Dorman’s estimable draftsmanship, the more tangible his fantasies the more pedestrian they are.  The physical and imagistic disjunction collage affords brings a droll artificiality–an absurdism, really–to his encyclopedic riffs on technology, nature and the fragility of memory.  The literal piecemeal construction of, say, Versus (2008) is a vital component of its elegantly underplayed pairing of The Tower of Babel and The Peaceable Kingdom.  The second-hand source materials—Dorman must spend hours scouring garage sales, used bookstores and grandma’s desk drawer for his yellowing inventory of period articles—endow the best pieces with a necessary sense of remove.  Without it, Dorman’s Boschean reveries would be mere entertainments, bereft of irony, invention or bite.  So it is with the drawings.

It’s good, then, that Dorman’s cut-and-paste extravaganzas dominate the exhibition—they’re among his finest.  The work’s crystalline execution is typical, as is the generous excess of imagery, but the increased philosophical concentration is new and welcome.  It’s a spoiler’s game to pin-down the meaning of art as various (and fun) as this, but Dorman’s thoughts about the limits of human understanding are fairly patent.  Pseudo-Biblical, pseudo-mythological, pseudo-Darwinian and uniformly wistful, Dorman’s art posits a cosmos where fact is forever embellished and sometimes hoodwinked by caprice.  He may be more of a realist than we think.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 12, 2010 edition of City Arts.

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