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June 21 - July 30, 2005, at George Billis Gallery, Culver City

by Jody Zellen

“Hanging Hills, Resting Buddha,”
2005, ink on antique map.

“Lake Erie, of Course,”
2005, ink on antique map.

For his Los Angeles solo debut, New York-based painter Josh Dorman presents a series of mixed media works that investigate the idea of the landscape as a navigable space. In curator Paul Auster’s words, Dorman’s “map pieces are tantalizing, elusive works. Though small in scale, they are difficult to describe, almost impossible to pin down in words, and yet they hold our attention in the same way that stories do. So much is going on in them that we feel compelled to look for a narrative, as if by ‘reading’ the images before us we could finally grasp them in all their complexity.”

Dorman, whose earlier paintings explored magical and invented settings, has pushed his work into a new territory by beginning with the reality of the maps and using their color and composition as a point of departure. The dreamlike qualities of his earlier work is enriched by this grounding in reality. Memory and the topography of reflection still drive the work, yet now they have a clearer purpose and content.

In these new paintings fantasy and reality collide. Dorman’s intricate drawings and watercolors cover antique maps, creating imagined worlds along actual rivers and mountain ranges. The maps provide both a surface to cover and a context to spur the imagination. Dorman allows the markings from the source material to bleed through his additions.

In “Hanging Hills, Resting Buddha,” the topographical markings of landscape maps from a United States Department of the Interior Geological Survey appear beneath transparent drawn trees and green and brown inked areas of landscape. This is formally reminiscent of Giotto and Italian pre-Renaissance space, where scenes from different time-periods seem to co-exist in the same image. Dorman ignores the grid of the map and its aerial perspective, instead painting an invented journey that ignores the laws of nature. Towards the center of this work is a bright blue lake, from there the eye moves past painted trees, hills, and a small hut to a large seated Buddha. Abstraction turns into representation, and line turns into form, creating a new map upon an old territory. These are playful works that feel as though Klee has met Kandinsky.

In “Lake Erie, of Course” childlike drawings of figures and bicycles travel up and down linear details in the map like a game of ‘Chutes and Ladders.’ Colors are bright and forms distort the formal cartographic geometry. Shapes in the flat landscape become buildings, castles, or primitive toys. The maps hold the disparate elements together and create a voyage that is both whimsical and mysterious.

From an early age Dorman drew “monsters, winged beings, organic machines with gears and tendrils and bolts of electric current.” What began as the routine musings of childhood fantasy has grown into a vocabulary of determined and poignant marks that retain the spontaneity of a child’s hand, yet resonate with mature content. While Dorman refers to himself as a landscape painter, his works are less about the observable world than about the imagined. Nothing quite makes sense.

There is a sensation of vertigo as well as transformation within the works. In “Verdant” tree-like tendrils flow into organic shapes that could reference the sea or the sky. Dorman speaks of his works as being about ways to navigate space. Space is a limitless territory. By beginning with something concrete--a map--he can imagine a transcendent world that would inhabit the space defined by the map.