Robert Doble’s latest exhibition, ‘The Forgotten World’, is a depiction of a world which is both recognisable and beautifully mysterious. The work is a natural continuation of his last body of paintings – ‘Palimpsest’, from 2018. Made predominantly while the artist was ensconced in isolation at a coastal retreat, these paintings are replete with organic forms and images from nature. During breaks in the painting process, his daily routine was to trek along the wild, deserted beach, with his faithful dog, Devon, by his side, in order to immerse himself in the landscape. On these walks he would construct impermanent standing towers from the rocks along the way, which would stay standing only until the elements toppled them. He would photograph these structures, as well as other natural forms which caught his attention – a hank of seaweed; the dried husk of a cast up fish; the rills and runnels in the sand caused be the retreating tide etc. Some of these photographs would form the basis for subsequent paintings. The element of cause and effect – man and nature – underpins this entire exhibition.
The paintings are a mixture of the figurative and the abstract – an area that Doble has been exploring for several decades. He has mastered a technique of scoring lines into the wooden panels, and then painting over this. There may be numerous alternating layers of this process, so that a rich ‘lacework’ patina is arrived at. Imagery and abstraction are interwoven in a rich amalgam, one suggesting the progress of the other, and so on. This ‘stream of consciousness’ approach means that Doble has had to be keenly aware of nuances of colour and texture, shape and content, as they arise in the making. It demands of the artist a highly tuned focus.
Throughout the exhibition we are aware of Doble’s assured drawing ability, which shines through even in the most abstracted flurry of incised lines. The elegance of the drawn line is perhaps most evident in the single object paintings. A single olive, enclosed by slabs of abstract colour. An inscrutable abstracted head, presented in layers of orange, stares wistfully into our space – it is crisscrossed with pale marks, which could be benign, or more solemn. A lemon sits, upended, on a shelf or table, the texture of its skin economically suggested by a dark scumble of paint on its left side – its weight and mass skillfully evoked by the varying outline that isolates it from the surrounding grey. A luscious pear sits on a plane, its rotund form irresistibly erotic.
One picture, in particular, of a head, is noteworthy for its bravura paint handling. The head looks slightly to the right. Its face is mysterious, the eyes mapped out with a dark line. The highlights on the end of the nose, and the lips, have been made be dabbing through wet paint to allow the underpainting to glow through. The head is enclosed by a pattern of swirling marks, which have been ‘printed’ against, or through, the paint. It suggests a covering garment of some kind. The connection of this formal patterning against the informal passages of loose paintwork, is quite dazzling.
In the very touching work entitled ‘Forgiveness’, Doble uses an urgent, direct line. To the right is situated a large bird, which looks benignly onto a human head, lying in repose. It is only after a second glance that it becomes apparent that this head is actually resting on a much larger, inverted head. All of this floats above a beautiful abstract base line of orange and black. In this pared back assemblage, Doble creates a poetic image which speaks volumes about our capacity to forgive the transgressions of others.
In ‘The Mother’, Doble presents the back view of a female figure. The background shimmers with golden yellow; an underpainting of sapphire blue glints through the ground colour, suggesting water, or perhaps the drapery that she sits on. Once again, we see the assured linework of Doble’s drawing, which both encloses the figure, and breaks through it. The title of the work is perhaps twofold, suggesting motherhood on the micro- and the macro- level: the human mother, and Mother Nature.
‘The Visitor’ depicts an animal – or perhaps more accurately, it depicts, in flux, the spirit of an animal, which has emerged via Doble’s preparatory mark making. One can almost see the thought process of the artist as he allows certain shapes and lines to remain, even as he obscures other unnecessary ones – until the final manifestation has arrived on the surface.
There is an overriding theme which carries through the show – that of the figure, or natural object in isolation. It is as if Doble, who has found such fruitful artistic inspiration in his own isolation, on the rugged coast, is inviting us to focus down on our delicate natural world – and our increasingly fragile place within it. We should never overlook ‘The Forgotten World’. This should, naturally, be of primary concern to us all.
Steve Cox, 2021.