Dark, But Not Sad

Jorg Dubin was pissed. The good people of the Art Institute of Southern California had haphazardly set his portraits on the ground in the course of chopping a doorway through a wall. Sure, it's their wall. But this is his exhibit. He just thought they might have told him ahead of time—or told him at all, instead of letting him arrive one day to find his exhibit in total disarray. You know?

But Dubin handles things better these days than he used to. He fired off a letter, sure. But he didn't fire off a firebomb. He has kind of mellowed out, and so have his paintings. This isn't a bad thing: it's not like Dubin has taken the Sting route and become a self-parodic fogey. Rather, it's as though—somewhere in his 40s—he realized the art of simplicity. He no longer needs to paint a bloody knife stuck through his hand to convey anguish; he isn't compelled to shock with gore or nude three-legged women. He can now illustrate everything he needs to in the shadowed planes of a face.

Dubin's "New Paintings" at the Art Institute comprises only portraits, and for a change, they're all clothed. Each is painted on an ash-blue background with few distractions. But while the blue is almost identical in each work, Dubin distinctly changes the mood by varying the tone minutely. Occasionally (especially when the subject is a woman), it's absolutely serene and peaceful. For the men, the color is generally corpse-like and sad. Dubin has always been a shockingly dark painter—think Morrissey, but not gay—whose works belie the quietly jovial guy one meets in person. His past self-portraits usually depicted him chained in dungeons or slicing himself with daggers or walking away from Waco-like explosions. His subjects were usually painted fish-belly white. Here, there's sometimes a note of melancholy, but it's manageable.

The saddest of the pieces here is Nelson. Shown head and shoulders only and wrapped in a white smock that seems vaguely institutional, Nelson looks like a mental patient. Like all the subjects, his face is lined. His eyes are downcast, and his mouth is slack.

Dubin's paintings line the walls of the Art Institute's small gallery—when they're not on the floor, of course—and they're peopled with folk one sees frequently at Laguna Beach parties. Singer Patty Booker (White Boots) sits straddling a chair, her head tilted back. Her guitar gleams against the back wall. The women in Dubin's new paintings aren't dangerous young blond muses. They aren't in their first bloom, and he doesn't hide it. And they couldn't care less. They're content women who happily show their age in their tendon-y hands and their unmade-up faces.

Steph shows a pretty brunette with a red nose and lined skin. Her hair is fine and straight like a woman who maintains the fashions of the '70s she grew up in. It has a beautiful simplicity. MX With Gold Ear Rings shows a toned blonde leaning forward in a leather chair, her martini on the floor beside her. Her sexy, strappy shoes are only partly on. She's supposed to be louche, even lascivious, but instead she just looks fun. And pretty hot.

Dubin's exquisite technique (he's self-taught but gives off a whiff of Dutch master) is loose; his light oils are scumbled thickly over his darks, building upon themselves until they're small mountains one feels compelled to touch. His subjects are tanned and gleaming, with big, heavy feet. Their skin is so solid they could be sculptures. Helmet Man shows a guy extremely red of neck, his hands gloved and his eyes covered by huge cop glasses. He's got a bristly Tom Selleck mustache and ballpoint pens sticking out of his breast pocket. He's hilarious: he's absolutely porcine—and the kind of guy who isn't often immortalized. But if he's a friend of Dubin's, he's probably really cool. And he is beef on canvas, as solid as a wall. But then, the walls at the Art Institute are less solid than Dubin would like.

"New Paintings" at the Art Institute of Southern California, 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6000. Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Aug. 18.


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