Death demands reaction. Shrouded in a diagnosis of lymphoma, death announced its presence to artist Robert Doble about a year ago. Now cured, and an alarming ball of energy and health, the artist responded not with despair but an intense and impressively large body of work. Explosive gestures of vivid colour, this exhibition of canvases and works on paper are a defiant paint-pot thrown into the face of transience. To consider the works as simply a personal reaction to looming mortality would be to limit them, but neither can this touchstone, dealing as it does with that most fundamental of distinctions – that between life and death – be ignored. The artist made no overt declaration of his condition during the exhibition lest the work been seen in this singular light, but the universal existential themes embodied here emerge from that experience.
Intricately layered abstracts rendered in house paints and bright sign writer’s enamels, along with a series of ink watercolours on paper, the paintings are a fireworks of colour. Three large paintings Methotrexate, Cytotoxic and Cyclophosphamide are compose of a complex web of layers and enmeshed traces of paint, where microfine streaks of pigment bleed into the flow of the sticky enamel layers. The mid sized canvases – Reaction, Pathology of Surface, Sheath and Building Impulse – are also layered but more minimal, composed of bold rounded splashes of paint that drip elegantly down the canvas. The ink works are more sparse still, often in just one or two colours, scratchy watercolour brush marks that jump between the positive and negative space of the white paper grounds. All give the impression of speed. They look fast – as if spontaneous gestures and runs of paint have suddenly been snap frozen in mid flow. The layers give the game away though, these seemingly fast images are the result of multiple renderings and considered gestures. Like a Jackson Pollock, Doble plays between the flow of chance and control.
This is work of colour and gesture and it would be fair to say Doble is an expressionist. The work is highly personal and intuitive. The paintings seek not to illustrate their themes but to communicate an emotive response. Like the abstract expressionists, gestural mark making stands as a cipher of the artist’s emotive state and is intended to elicit a sympathetic response in the viewer. Here, the role of colour is central and its operation is symbolic and synaesthetic. A viewer would not be immediately aware that sickness lurks within these riotous colours, but strong empathetic associations emerge through the contemplation of the paintings. Those gorgeous but slightly shrill lolly colours recall the alien hues of chemotherapy drugs injected into the patient or the hallucinations they might engender. Their flowing forms echo the calculated seep of medicinal liquid through a catheter, the red pulsing of blood, or the billowing drapery of diaphanous curtains hanging around the hospice bed. The rounded, lurid forms evoke the synthetic shades of medicinal tablets and capsules. Yet, as loaded as these colour combinations are, they can also be seen as joyous plays of pure colour. Unlike many expressionists works the hues are not gothic or mordant but high toned and vibrant. Doble admires many expressionist painters but the work most closely recalls the bright lively colours of the Blaue Reiter painters such as Vassily Kandinsky and August Macke rather than sombre mud of the Der Brücke group and their offshoots.
Surprisingly, some of the work recalls Francis Bacon, an artist Doble cites as an influence. Surprising because there is no superficial resemblance between the figurative work of Bacon and these abstracts. Although not representational, the mid size canvas such as Receiver, Transmitter, Linking and others, have a Baconesque play between a the flat, silent background and the turbulent series of gestural marks that feature in the foreground. Both artists also address intense existential concerns, although the angst in Doble works results in a strident affirmation and is emphatically upbeat in comparison to Bacon’s scenes of insular despair. Although far removed in aesthetic sensibility, the synthetic colours and fascination with issues of existential being also links the work with fellow English artist Damien Hirst, whose work Doble also admires. In the elegant compositions and crisply defined forms there is also a formal kinship with the late work of Matisse.
A number of works have complex surfaces of many layers. Strange amorphous grounds of billowing colours swirl and collide in maniacal disarray. Over these underlayers are meshes of dripped line, often truncated, incomplete grid forms made up of long dripped paint or stubby black flows falling briefly from a central line. These drips run in a variety of directions and trace the tilt of the canvas moved by the artist while the paint dried. These halting structures bravely try to anchor the swirling incoherence below and it is not difficult to see them as a invocation of the artist’s emotional state whilst under going treatment – a faltering attempt to superimpose order over a boiling void. In this, these lines might also be considered as a more general human condition that seeks to impose structures onto the shifting flux of the world. In conversation with the artist it becomes apparent that his illness was a pivotal and life changing experience, as one would expect it to be, however he has taken something potentially maudlin and self indulgent and transformed it into a positive affirmation. It certainly forced a change from his previous work that tended toward dark hues and grided compositions charting autobiographic elements of the artist’s life. Here, the work has opened up to more directly address universal themes and has transmogrified into a confident experimentation in colour. Nor is the exhibition reducible to a simple and clichéd affirmation of the life force, there is much here that is discordant, sickly sweet, disconcertingly visceral. In this, these are very honest and direct paintings based on an extremely confusing, emotionally contradictory and anxious time, a time ultimately shared by us all.
Beyond the illness and the emotions that sparked the work, a key to the images is their relationship with time. In all the works there is a sense of speed, not of a fleeting moment but of a moment drawn out over time. A drip of paint speaks not just of an initial splash of pigment but also of its subsequent treacle-slow spread down the canvas. Although control is exercised in the placement of the paint, the path of its seepage is unpredictable and left to chance. During this period, the artist must surrender to time and to the materials. The paintings thereby speak metaphorically of control and abandonment and the act of their making has a parallel in existence itself – the sudden flash of paint splashed against canvas, the slow unknowable flow of its path, its final arrested form.
There has been a much vaunted return to painting in recent years, the medium is once again in the critical eye and being celebrated by curators once more after being largely shunned during the installation, video and photography dominated 90s. Interestingly, the painting that has gained much recent recognition is of a particular type. Often extremely finished, flat surfaced, seamless and representational it is often also concerned to demonstrated particular theoretical assumptions that it refers to. Such painting is often highly self conscious and declares itself to so. Think of the likes of Glen Brown, Julian Opie or Charles Green and Lyndal Brown, amongst many others. In contrast Doble’s work is far more engaged with investigating texture, surface and colour. There is no strict conceptual basis which the work illustrates, but rather paint is used in a painterly way and allowed to determine its own fate. In this the work owes its allegiances to some early modernist work rather than self conscious post modernism. It falls within the lineage of what Duchamp once described as ‘retinal’ art, an approach which has not gained much attention in recent years. There is an innocence and earnestness here, not without humour, but without irony. In many ways this is the strength of the work, its courageous openness without the need for apologetic drolleries. Although ‘retinal’ this does not imply the work is purely decorative and lacks a conceptual basis. Rather than communicating its ideas literally, the work relies on empathy to reveal its themes, through mark and colour, rather than through representational, referential imagery. Doble would doubtless join another of his influences, Joseph Beuys in suggesting ‘the silence of Duchamp to be much overrated.’
This is not silent work but is eloquent and open painting exploring a range of fundamental emotional and psychological states through the direct use of materials. Given the circumstances in which it was produced, what makes the work truly remarkable is that it has forged a language which is at once very personal, but not self indulgent or hand wringing. Instead, it take the bleak subject of universal mortality and renders it with a positiveness that does not resort to homily or cliché but embodies a vivid celebration of engaged and dynamic life.
Stephen Haley 2003