Contributed by Margaret McCann / The covetous, dismissive, playful title of Don Doe’s 490 Atlantic show, “I’ll Have What They’re Having,” aptly conveys the work’s lively yet frustrated romanticism. Painting from collages reminiscent of Hannah Hoch’s, Doe mixes bodies and genders, scale and spatial orientation, subject and object, high and low culture – all held together in a solid but illogical cubistic order. The few sculptures included show sophisticated facility and prioritize the grotesque. The viewer is manipulated through surprising twists and turns.
Cut from a banal advertisement, scissors have carefully trimmed around a man’s elbow in Trench Coat Titian Migrant. Implied gesture suggests he is flashing his coat lining like a peddler of fake watches or an old-school pervert, amusingly at odds with his innocuous, unfocused gaze. Looming from his side like Eve from Adam’s rib is the nudeVenus from Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. Her outsize body curbs his as he, hand in pocket, shrinks Alice-like toward the denouement of her navel and crotch. Meanwhile, clever overlapping pushes him forward. Freudian notions suggest themselves; read into it what you wish.
Like the Surrealists who explored the libido and the unconscious, guided by Sigmund Freud’s map, Doe contends with the id’s darker urges. His blend of dexterity, whim, and distortion echoes that of Salvador Dali, mitigating passive aggression, an ugly emotion that art can beautify. Like the Symbolists, Doe finds creative sublimation in invented fleshy fictions, though his Wyrd goes beyond the weirdness of Ferdinand Hodler. Against a warm background at the top, a bluish shape awkwardly conjoins various erotic body parts, and moves from flatness to space as the orgiastic yet comical mass cascades not inelegantly to the floor.
At a slower velocity, the palpable deformations of Doe’s sculptures are more irksome. Sudden ruptures in the cynically titled Library Researcher recall archetypal sci-fi scenes, and the female anatomy of Hans Bellmer and Willem de Kooning. As Donald Kuspit put it, their “sum of parts do not add up to a human whole” but express a “vicious absurdity.” Unease is somewhat mollified by the fluidity of metamorphosis, however. As in Honoré Daumier’s caricatures, exaggeration seems to have occurred spontaneously in the act of modelling. Fueled by a kind of empathic resonance between subject and medium, form and content grow together. Admiration for such expert handling seems basic to our species, given global mythologies of humans molded from clay by gods.
It’s not hard to see Jungian dynamics of anima and animus at play in A Game of Patience. The clothed Venus from the same Titian painting is degraded by participation in a fantastic, gymnastic porn pretzel. Weightlessness, rhythmic movement, and strong color hint at rococo levity, as in Honore Fragonard or Francois Boucher. Thin paint also soften the harshness of soft- and hard-core female parts hinged like a pinwheel on a headless man in a business suit. Like John Currin, Doe struggles with the Male Gaze, but while Currin ridicules its object to reflect its subject, Doe wrestles directly with desire.
The title of Performer makes one wonder which figure performs. A woman presents herself in swanky yet goofy attire. Her child face is funny against her large mannequin-like arms and wide stance. Doe’s comprehension of gesture, like Currin’s, easily conjures the ridiculous. Perhaps being upstaged, a trumpet player behind sits like a light hidden under a bushel. In addition to Doe’s shrewd timing, color does emotional work here: the receding blue light bathes and harmonizes the musician with warm and cool greens – a sensitivity mockingly at odds with her clumsy assertion.
Despite some of the usual dysmorphia, “Folk Dance” is full of friendly hues and cheerful energy, carried especially in the confident stride of skirted legs below; the old-fashioned, modest attire communicates nostalgia. Relaxing chiaroscuro and brushy, atmospheric surfaces resemble the work of Reginald Marsh, imparting a similar joie de vivre. Doe prefers sensationalism to sentimentality, but this is a pretty happy, almost innocent, painting.
Doe’s work is full of subtle tricks, but trompe l’oeil can be as blatant as slapstick. In Crosstown, tacks, clips, pushpins, and tape are blithely depicted with the cavalier speed of stage painting. Male and female parts are again conjoined in a careless, abrupt arrangement that superficially resembles Goya’s Disasters of War, yet knowingly lacks pathos and bypasses pain. As with the shallow voyeurism of everyday web-surfing, the viewer is hurried through a variety of experiences before they can be fully considered, let alone felt.
Bearing an odd resemblance to Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene, A Girl Leans plays with Mannerist proportional distortion. Misfit parts make fun of Greek ideals of proportion, while masterful torsion suggests admiration for the realism of Auguste Rodin. Exaggerated forms, curves, and angles recall Mad magazine cartoonist Don Martin, sans the quick relief of humor. Its imagery and rough surface approach Georg Baselitz’s visceral, sometimes cruel expressionism. Without backgrounds to subdue them, the sculpted figure possesses more agency. In an impossible contrapposto, nearly half her body off-center, she appears to masochistically pull herself apart.
In dynamic but unsettling images, Doe’s fallen figures linger near the cusp of expressionism. But this artist’s heightened visual empathy is stuck on skillful imitation of the body. His cross to bear is a love for describing females in particular in all possible poses, leading him to construct engaging situations in which both artist and figures perform feats. While conjuring male disquiet and the failure of ideals, these edgy characters also pleasurably express their maker’s vitality.
“Don Doe: ‘I’ll Have What They’re Having’,” 490 Atlantic, 490 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. Through February 12, 2023.
About the author: Painter and arts writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League.