Visionary Exuberance: The Art of Uri Dowbenko
BY ROBERT C. MORGAN
Sometimes when encountering the work of an artist for the first time, one may try and recall a text, a poem, a piece of music, or some correlative that that feels consistent with the what one is seeing. I remember having this kind of experience more than three decades ago, upon my first encounter with Pollock’s great painting, Autumn Rhythm (1950), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While viewing the Pollock, I decided to arbitrate in my mind the sound of Vivaldi’s concerto. I could mentally hear Vivaldi’s Concerto as I experienced the brilliant flow of lines, the skeins and pours of Pollock’s paint, weaving together throughout this immense surface. It was a rather magical moment for me as I was discovering the process of becoming an artist, of finding my own voice, my own articulation through a transsensory process.
I mention this in connection with Uri Dowbenko who makes paintings, called “Metaphysical Landscapes,” that suggest other kinds of sensory experiences that are visual, textual, and musical. Dowbenko is a multitalented artist, writer, holographer, designer, publisher, media analyst, and world traveler. For him, painting is a kind of meditation, a way of opening the mind to the expressive intricacies that are often barred from expression in the conformist routines of everyday life. He takes his work seriously – and for good reason. Coming from a Ukrainian background, the subject of color seems a natural gift. His images function like hallucinogenic patterns. They carry us into an another world, his own intimate “metaphysical” world, a cosmos of thought, feeling, science, and tactile sensation.
The levels of meaning that he attributes to his work –“the organic level of consciousness – growing, decaying, and being reborn” or “patterns of light at cosmic levels, submicroscopic levels and macrocosmic levels, where all and everything is moving energy” – are not entirely off the mark. I say this because not all artists are capable of saying something that actually reflects what they do. Dowbenko can do this; and while his statements may sound far-fetched, they are not. The reason being is that his words reflect the creative process, the sense of being within an imaginative space, a state of mind that evokes a gamut of philosophical associations and poetic insights about the nature of how we think and feel and express what we mean. For artists – and certainly for Dowbenko – this kind of visual expression comes at an oblique angle. Never direct, the abstract colors and forms circle around us and enter our mind’s eye in a moment that we least expect.
I recall a conversation some weeks ago with a marketing analyst who works in the field of graphics. During the course of our conversation, it became clear that in today’s information-based economy, we do not suffer from a lack of technological know-how, but from is a lack of imaginative insight. Thus, when I examine the work of Dowbenko closely, I begin to see what he is after. He is inscribing his imagination by trying to contain a visionary state of awareness within the concentrated space of the page. His paintings evolve from an intense wandering and searching, a belief that somehow he can unravel what he is in the process of discovering – mysteries in space and time that have yet to be explained in the creative process, mysteries that evoke the human imagination at its most indelible source. Here Dowbenko struggles for the very foundation of meaning – the process of the imagination as it carries him through the unknown channels of the human mind.
I began by suggesting that some artists evoke a kind of transsensory awareness of time and space through an alternative medium, as in my encounter with Pollock through imagining the music of Vivaldi. One afternoon while reading the philosopher Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, I came upon the following passage: “If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is not art.”
While it might sound pretentious to assume that Uri Dowbenko’s brilliantly colored, twisted ganglia, his aggregates of looping tendrils, his bursting, planetary striations, and his jewel-like modules are the result of a being in a frenzy. But in some sense, we can still say that much art happens in this way. In the nineteenth century, when Nietzsche lived, the notion of becoming excited in the process of doing creative work. – whether poetry, music, or painting – was considered part of the Romantic spirit. Frenzy was a necessary condition for art to happen, for the artist’s imagination to let loose, and to grapple with the sensory dimension of life through the allegorical language of the medium.
Dowbenko’s artistic medium is painting. In his paintings, he fuses both abstract and symbolic imagery that thereby challenges our everyday senses. In contrast to Dowbenko’s approach, the information age has put our senses to sleep – and, in many ways, television becomes our soporific. Dowbenko’s paintings perform in quite the opposite way. From a proverbial viewpoint, his colors, shapes, and lines add up to a sum greater than its parts. There carry us from the microcosm of thought to the macrocosm of the visual imagination. They establish a conduit – a method of transport, of transmission – from one point to another. The metaphor of the web – so often used in information terminology today – becomes a literal matrix for Dowbenko. He infuses his paintings with organically-endowed shapes – cosmic flora and fauna with a touch of sturm und drang – a Wagnerian fiesta, a flowing, flowering matrix, that expands and contracts in relation to our transsenory involvement. The frenzy transmits a personal vision that alludes to the utopian possibilities of order as a process of sublimation, a positive antidote to the chaos that reigns on the surface of globalization.
What Dowbenko’s paintings tell us is very simple. The outward vision is important, but only in respect to the inward vision. The ordering of the conscious mind cannot exist without delving into the unconscious; and the unconscious is where Nietzsche’s frenzy begins and, concomitantly, where art evolves.
His paintings are the conjugation of a material and visionary exuberance. For Dowbenko, theories of art are less to the point than the experience of how one chooses to see. By learning to see, we may discover the terms that offer a necessary balance between the tactile and virtual realities that constitute our present-day environment.
*** Robert C. Morgan is a writer and art critic who holds a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. He has written and published nearly 1500 articles and reviews in a vast range of international magazines and professional journals. He writes for Art News (New York) and Art Press (Paris), and is Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine and Tema Celeste (Milan). He has authored catalogs, and monographs on numerous international artists. His books include Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth Press, 1998), Alain Kirili (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman (both Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000 and 2002), and Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Vasarely (forthcoming, George Braziller, 2004). Exhibitions that he has organized and curated include Allan Kaprow (1979), Komar and Melamid (1980), Six Artists abnd The Visual Score (1985), Logo Non Logo (with Pierre Restany, 1994), Women on the Verge (1995), The Gesture (2002), Samadhi: The Contemplation of Space (2002), Art and the Cinematic Vision (2003), Clear Intentions (2003) and is a Co-Curator for the Lodz Biennial (2004). In 1999 he was given the first Arcale award in art criticism (Salamanca) and was selected as a juror for the UNESCO prize during the Venice Biennial. A frequent international traveler, poet, and artist himself – with an extensive exhibition record -- Robert Morgan lives and works in New York where at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. He is currently completing a book on the interpretation of Eastern philosophy and the emergence of transcultural art.