Geoffrey Dorfman: “The painting is telling you exactly what it needs.”
Geoffrey Dorfman showed selected paintings from 2013-14 at Ober Gallery in Kent, CT, August 2 to 31 this summer. This post belongs to a series at artcritical, called “extract,” which acknowledges significant exhibitions of emerging and mid-career artists taking place around the United States, mostly in collegiate and alternative venues, beyond the purview of our regular critical coverage and dispatches. John Goodrich is a longstanding contributor at artcritical.
It’s a common refrain among artists: to really get to know a painting, you have to see it in the flesh. The subtle shifts of color, the physicality of the paint, and the impact of its full dimensions — none of these can be replicated on screen or in print. All, however, count among the most elemental properties of painting, and for some artists, their qualities are so complex and subtle that they warrant a lifetime of study.
Geoffrey Dorfman is clearly such an artist. His paintings — produced through a discipline of constant improvisation — possess a bodily presence, a fleshiness, all their own. Talking about painting with Dorfman, one senses that for him it is not just a calling but a moral commitment. Gestures of paint have weight, colors have substance, and the two inform each other. “Color and texture are not separate,” the artist maintains. “Painting stands absolutely against disembodied color.”
Words will forever fall short in conveying the visual and tactile expressions of painting. Yet it seems safe to say that, for Dorfman the first gestures of paint start the hope of uncovering meaningful forms; the gathering flux confirms and strengthens these forms’ identities, and if all goes well, the forms become real — not as references to the external and literal, but according to the energies of paint itself. (“The painting is telling you exactly what it needs.”) It’s a process of incited accidents in which painter and paint are accomplices.
No surface in a Dorfman canvas remains static. Areas that seem at first an even glow of color turn out to be layers of inter-brushed pigments. The quality of space continuously changes; a portion of a canvas may seem like a close-up, shallow, clear-running stream, or as deep as an alpine lake or a hall of mirrors — though one suspects that the artist would reject even such lyrical allusions to the external.
In Pink Cabinet, condensations of forms punctuate a background of tawny green-browns. One’s eye — or really, one’s mind — wants to impose the familiar: an area could be darkening due to a cast shadow, and a “ground plane” lightening up because of vagaries of illumination. But such imaginings soon dance away in the sheer ineluctability of paint, which ranges in texture from buttery, knife-skimmed surfaces to lumpy coagulations to thin, canvas-revealing brushstrokes. Colors hum from within these turgid textures: a curl of intense white tops a sturdy, deep mauve; wandering greens incise a hard, pure yellow; oranges and greens streak in ethereal layers. (These may be Dorfman’s “shape wannabees” — forms half-emerging from the depths.) Spreading across the surface in a kind of urgent play, each element somehow remains mindful of others as well as the canvas edges.
Dorman likes to compare painting to following a thread through a labyrinth. One proceeds as best one can, but the way is never sure: “The thread breaks; you pick up the wrong thread.” Viewing a group of his canvases together, one is particularly struck by their divergent paths. Iolas follows an entirely different color scheme than Cabinet, with a dense, pink-beige background irradiated in places by an underlying yellow. Arrayed around the top and left of this canvas are a series of small, tightly drawn arcs and angling lines, some containing contrasting pulses of color. Each hue reacts to the ground in different fashion: a brilliant yellow, though close in tone, lifts aloofly; purples sink as anchoring notes; whites converse among themselves, some floating as thick, opaque strokes of paint, others revealing themselves (up close) as bare parts of canvas. Other paintings — Sun Scratch, Portal, and Inez — take a very different tack, turning to denser all-over tapestries of color.
In some canvases, faint, window-like patterns cordon off a section, momentarily redefining a few square inches as an escape, and the surrounding ones as a confining interior. Such an incident occurs in Augury, but it’s a subtle sideshow within the larger drama of merging purple and green tides, whose collision sets off a series of curious events, including a pair of misaligned blue-green half-circles and an irregular bull’s-eye of concentric polygons, ”a shard within a shard.” Across this same canvas, two pale rectangles — one a lightly limned outline, the other a gap between broad, thick brushstrokes — elicit contrary states of presence and absence.
The primal forces in Dorfman’s paintings seem at once alien and familiar. They contain animated spaces, without any kind of fixed topography; a sense of internal scale without preconceived notions of height, width or depth; presences without the usual distinctions — so crucial to our everyday perceptions—between object and void. We must dig deeper than our usual cognitive powers to come to grips with these canvases. But they compel us to try, as we follow best we can the thread left by the artist who preceded us, searching countless paths. “You have order. You depart from the order. Then you come back to it.”