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October 28-December 16, 2006 at Cal State L.A., Luckman Gallery, East Los Angeles

by Mat Gleason

“Untitled (Erehwon Garden),” 1975-76,
acrylic on canvas, 60 x 84”.

“Compaq/Sonic Boy", 2000, acrylic
on canvas, 11 x 20 x 7 1/2”.

"Endless Instant", 2000, acrylic
on canvas, 22 x 22 x 7 1/4".

Comfortably occupying the gap between painting and sculpture, Daniel Douke (pronounced Doo-KAY) is best known as a painter of boxes. He does not construct boxes (as a sculptor would), nor does he illustrate their form (as a painter would). Rather he renders--to perfection--every nuance of a box in a manner that could be called photorealistic. . .if photography ever catches up to Douke! His uncanny eye for detail and dextrous precision combine to recreate every perceivable imperfection among the mundane details and geometry of the heretofore ordinary cube.

In “Endless Instant,” a 30-year career retrospective, we see how his penchant for presenting the world as it exactly exists has been the theme in all of his work. In the mid-1970s he garnered notoriety for photorealistic renderings of Southern California swimming pools. In one large untitled 1973 painting of a Reseda pool, the perspective is from the surface of the water looking toward patio furniture. Every detail practically down to the last atom is lined up and crisply on view. The sensation of chlorinated summer afternoons absorbs the viewer, lifting Douke’s realism beyond mere careful observation. It borders on the producing of reality. And herein is the seed for his investigations beyond the picture plane. The need to recreate rather than depict reality took the artist toward the object. But an impish sense of humor compelled Douke to make paintings that are neither window into the world nor sculptural statement.

And so, there, mounted on the wall is a medium sized cardboard box. Mid-seventies minimalism at its most insistently ordinary? Donald Judd’s specific object made for the masses in some Marxist melodrama? A Duchampian snark on everything sacred about gallery walls? Look closer. The tape, the address label, the insignificant scuffs and dings from delivery, shipping and handling--they are all painted on. The box is not even cardboard, it is canvas. This is how Douke stayed sane inside the 70’s insanity of art world postmodern babble. He made realistic artworks of the grittiest, realest objects of his time.

In the 1980s, with this deft talent refusing to play to the art world’s desire for a one-trick pony, Douke made large object-paintings that resembled massive shards of discarded steel. Again, the eye is fooled and the lazy Duchampian scolded--as the artist’s oil on canvas simultaneously mimicked Richard Serra and the detritus of industry. But it was his love of a fine cigar that brought him a big career boost. In the early 1990s, he began creating large scale reproductions of cigar boxes in un-scuffed, pristine condition, complete with faithful renderings of the baroque scenes on display in the center of the lid, be they a mysterious sheik for the “Sultan” brand of rolled tobacco, or the triumphant cherubs celebrating “La Gloria Cubana” cigars. A waiting list for these works developed. And in the midst of this stage of hyper-production, Douke took breaks to work on small floor pieces of scuffed and chipped Apple Computer boxes. The I-Mac had just hit, and its array of sumptuous colors gave high-tech its own fashion statement. Soon the Dot-Com millionaires were in line with the smoking investment bankers. Douke had managed to make a beautiful, seductive object that had a conceptual rigor, and made them work together.

Douke’s realism is in the long art historical lineage of precision engineers, and yet his choices of subject matter satisfy the basic criteria of many schools of artistic theory. Few artists could be construed as Pop, Minimal, late-Dada, photorealist or trompe l’oeil, but this artist pleasantly works the room, cozy with them all. His work exists at the oft-theorized intersection of eye, hand and mind. While three generations of art world denizens have been yammering about the possibilities of these three working together, Douke has been manifesting the notion into reality.

[Note—Douke’s new paintings are also the subject of a current exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica—Ed.]