Dubrow’s Crisp Canvases Engage Tradition, City Life

There’s no epithet in the art world quite as damning or feared as “conservative.” Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? The word carries with it the stale smell of convention, easily digested comforts and hidebound principles. (Forget politics; we’re talking aesthetics here.)

Certainly there’s no creature so roundly mocked by contemporary tastemakers. People twist themselves into knots trying to avoid the label. After all, doesn’t history teach us that regard for precedent and suspicion of novelty are wrongheaded?

Well, to an extent, anyway. Modernism—or, more specifically, the avant-garde—insisted that art must push boundaries and question definitions about the nature of the art object itself. The hapless fate of those who stood against modernism’s challenges to established taste has left an indelible impression on artists, curators, dealers, critics and—that most enigmatic of all things—the general audience.

The innovations of modernism were met originally with fierce opposition and eventually with (wait for the beat) utter acceptance. Resistance is futile: Outrage is the norm. That’s the moral of the story and the law of contemporary culture. Thus the avant-garde becomes incapable of genuinely revolutionizing form or taste. The cutting edge simply plays to an audience feigning shock for the sake of feigning shock.

Marcel Duchamp had the integrity to mock those who mistook his provocations for art. But then Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns made Duchamp’s gadfly cynicism safe for the masses. Predigested, vacuum-packed and eminently consumable, Dadaism is now a gleaming parody of itself. The anti-aesthetic has become the mainstream for a subculture fueled by status, fashion and real estate. Shock has followed shock to ever-diminishing effect—or, rather, to huge profits.

Thumbing one’s nose at culture has become especially lucrative as the art scene has become ever more entwined with showbiz. Enabling critics are, at worst, capitalist stooges and, at best, flatterers to the court. Should we ask hard questions about the artistic legitimacy of the latest transgression? Let’s not. Better to be an easy lay than to wonder if the sex you’re having is any good.

“Conservative,” then, is just a slur used to prop up a rickety, glittery social network. It’s a conversation-stopper meant to quell dissent. Yet it’s also a more widely applicable term than you might think. Mark Stevens, the art critic for New York magazine, described the 2006 Whitney Biennial as “conservative at heart … [embodying] the well-worn conventions of our time.” Huey Lewis had it wrong, apparently: It’s square to be hip.

John Dubrow, whose recent paintings are on exhibit at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, is neither square nor hip; he’s just good. As a painter, he’s conservative—that is, peculiarly, but not slavishly, aware of precedent. Tradition is a quiet but vital power informing his art.

The history of painting is a living continuum in which an artist participates, not an inert compendium of received images. Mr. Dubrow’s peers are Fra Angelico, Piero and the anonymous artisans responsible for crafting Byzantine and Russian icons. To say that isn’t to grant him equal status—something the artist himself would scoff at—but, rather, to point to the serious nature of his enterprise. Drive without reach is a paltry, ineffective thing. Mr. Dubrow’s art is healthy with ambition.

But it’s also hugely modest in demeanor. Mr. Dubrow’s paintings of Paris, Brooklyn and Union Square are essays in self-effacement, always favoring clarity over catharsis. The densely layered surfaces of his canvases evince a principled distrust of the facile mark.

Mr. Dubrow doesn’t work from photographs but bases each canvas on sketches made onsite. In recent pieces, his paint handling has become blunter, at times achieving a stucco-like physicality. The time and persistence dedicated to craft in no way impedes a startling, newfound immediacy. The work is crisper, the shapes more defined. Mr. Dubrow wields a palette knife with a combination of rigor and abandon; the effect is harshly kinetic. What the canvases have lost in atmosphere (still evident in View from Studio, Brooklyn, from 2001-6), they’ve gained in tautness, structure and, somewhat surprisingly, humor. The new paintings aren’t necessarily better, but they’re different.

Or maybe they are better. Two paintings of Union Square, in particular, are wonders of pictorial condensation that nevertheless remain true to the diversity of city life. New Yorkers will recognize the honesty in Mr. Dubrow’s paeans to the city. They’ll also recognize emotional resilience: The elegiac, post-9/11 mood of Prince and Broadway (2002-3), the brooding centerpiece of Mr. Dubrow’s previous show at Bookstein, has given way to Edenic homages to the necessities of leisure. The shift is heartening, revealing the momentum and confidence of the artist—and his city.

The solace and rejuvenation provided by nature, however manufactured and manicured, buzzes within these exacting orchestrations of light and form. Tumults of green dominate—treetops seen in the distance are established by chunky slabs of color—and are punctuated by roundelays of sharp pinks, oranges and blues. We recognize certain types in the paintings: sun worshippers, yoga masters, idling college students and, if I’m seeing things accurately, a shapely nudist.

There are witty grace notes as well. In Union Square (2005-6), an unabashed wedge of oil paint serves as the unabashed beer gut of one ample city-dweller. It’s a lovely, understated pun on the artist’s responsibility both to his materials and to maintaining illusion. But what matters most is the expansiveness of vision that reanimates and redeems the world around us.

Mr. Dubrow proves that while conservatism in art is necessary, in the end, it’s pretty much beside the point. Once we lose ourselves in a work of art, such distinctions are just intellectual distractions and obstacles to our pleasure. The Duchampian herd, puritanical at heart, would rob us of the profoundly sensual joys that art affords. Fortunately, we have artists like Mr. Dubrow to prove that art should not deny experience, but extend it.

John Dubrow: New Paintings is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, third floor, until May 5.