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by Ray Zone

(Koplin Gallery, West Hollywood) In a recent article in The New Yorker Lawrence Wechsler explored the quality of light in the Los Angeles Basin. In the words of Paul Vangelisti, "Wechsler concludes that Angelenos, in their various raptures, are actually reacting to a type of light whose quality is principally isolate and meditative, rather than dramatic."

This quality of a flat, contemplative lucidity is present in the paintings of James Doolin, whose urbanscapes and environmental portraits of Los Angeles do much more than merely document the terrain. Doolin's use of light and perspective actually define a sense of space that is Los Angeles, a coolly refined and highly neutral world which pulls the viewer wordlessly in. You breathe the air in Doolin's urbanscapes. The environments he renders are enveloping, awash in the flat light of his images.

The work is pleasing to the eye but beauty may not be the point. It is the vast impersonal Los Angeles Basin, what early inhabitants called the "Valley of Smokes," and it’s austere detachment from emotion that is conveyed. It is a landscape and light that, in the words of Vangelisti, is "the result of extraordinarily stable air trapped between ocean, high mountains and desert. . ."

“Crossroads,” o/c, 72 x 82”, 1999.

"Bus Stop," o/c, 48 x 36", 1998.


"Psychic," o/c, 54 x 36", 1998.

"Underpass," o/c, 36 x 48", 1999.
Even in Doolin's urban landscapes there is the sense of the desert, trackless and mute, which underlies the concrete and steel structures which overlay it as an increasingly complex veneer that is equally isolative. As a useful valence point in this exhibit, Doolin depicts the desert of Los Angeles as it existed prior to any human habitation with an outsized painting titled Primal Landscape.

The large Crossroads, with its array of freeways converging into a gradual haze from the point of view of a driver in a front seat, perfectly encapsulates the experience of Los Angeles. It is a view created from inside an automotive culture and from within the environment it has engendered. A similar work, Underpass, is painted from the point of view of the sidewalk. A "stretch" limousine and a line of stopped cars, brake lights aglow, precede the sidewalk stroller/viewer into the shadowy concrete corridor and beyond to the stoplight in daylight on the other side.

Doolin is a master of vanishing point perspective and the use of diminution of tone to convey a sense of depth and atmosphere. Bus Stop perfectly captures the light and shadow, the ambience of waiting and departure. It is a wonderfully constructed image, built from lines and shadows, of an urban visual repertoire of telephone poles, signage and people. Connections is a clever tour-de-force of transportation, converging lines that range from jet trails in the sky to automotive bridges, trains and rails along a barely wet Los Angeles riverbed.

Psychic depicts the neon signage of a fortune teller at dusk, reflected in a rain-wet street beneath a glowing sky of orange clouds. Atop the building where the psychic resides is a large, perfectly blank billboard. It's a witty and ironic comment on both the environmental tabula rasa after a rain and the unseen future which a fortune teller might reveal to a querent.

Doolin is perhaps best known for his recent series of murals installed at the MTA Headquarters Building. Those four historical murals depict the growth of Los Angeles from 1870 onwards. A large maquette for the last painting in the series L.A. After 2000, as well as studies for the other murals, are included in the exhibit. In each of these works as well, the austerity of the unique light and space that is Los Angeles is brilliantly conveyed.