John Pence Gallery

Carl Dobsky, Studio Shelf with Military Bag, 2004  Courtesy John Pence Gallery, San Francisco  Carl Dobsky (b. 1972) brings a muted sense of poetry to humble everyday objects and urban scenes. His fall show at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco, where the artist recently moved from New York City, demonstrates both technical skill and individuality. Like many of today’s accomplished young realists, Dobsky studied at Jacob Collins’s Water Street Atelier, after stints at the Ringling School of Art in Florida and the New York Academy of Art. Dobsky is an excellent still-life painter, bringing grace to the most mundane of objects through the alchemy of light. Carburetor (2006) is almost a portrait, the ungainly bit of machinery becoming biomorphic as it sits on spindly legs in the middle of a wide-planked, stained white floor. The plebian color palette–dirty white and weathered, metallic darks—is surprisingly attractive. The detritus of Chinese Take-Out (2005) is depicted with similar grace. Touches of red—a Coke can, a couple of firecrackers and the clichéd pagoda motif on the paper containers—enliven the composition. The best of the still lifes, however, is Studio Shelf with Military Bag (2004), an arrangement of utilitarian objects with a matte surface that seems appropriate to the plaster wall, raw wood frame and canvas sack. The play of light and shadow gives the dull green, collapsed-rectangle bag the presence of a soft sculpture.

Dobsky tries his hand at a variety of genres: landscapes of terrain as different as western mesas and the green fields around a Vermont farm house; figure studies and portraits, such as the striking Portrait of Michael Hussar (2006), with its shaved-headed, bearded subject projecting a Rasputin-like intensity; even trompe l’oeil. Everything is well executed, although at this stage of his career, Dobsky still seems to be finding himself. One subject area where he shows real flair is the cityscape, unpeopled slices of urban architecture such as On Line (View from Fire Escape), from 2005, with its strong orthogonals. Rooftop views are particularly effective. In Farewell to New York (2006) watertowers and low buildings are juxtaposed against the peach light of the sky, with taller structures reduced to a hazy silhouette in the distance. Moon Over the Rooftops (Joy), also 2005, is another evocative composition. The sky that takes up most of picture communicates a sense of liberation. For better or worse, successful artists often find themselves repeating a signature formula. Dobsky seems to be keeping his options open.

Running concurrently at the John Pence Gallery was an exhibition of new mixed media collages by Hugh Shurley (b. 1959). The San Francisco native’s photomontages on metal combine contemporary preoccupations—appropriation, gender—with an artisan’s patient craftsmanship. Shurley’s method is palimpsestic. Layers of a transparent image are interleaved with found objects, shreds of other photographs, historical documents and personal mementos. Photographic manipulation is as old as the artform itself, as the artistically doctored photographs of mid-nineteenth-century pioneers Gustave Le Gray and Henry Peach Robinson attest. Their juxtaposition of fragments to create an illusionistic if vaguely disorienting whole suggests both the contemporary Pre-Raphaelites and the future Surrealists. Shurley, in contrast, achieves layers of depth but bathes the image in an overall soft patina. The subject matter is filtered through a gauze of nostalgia not dissimilar to the Proustian fashion work of Deborah Turbeville. But Shurley’s diaphanous overlays, wrinkles, stains and smudges give his compositions a painterly quality. In Firm Stands the Sky (2006) the half-length figure of a young Adonis, shouldering a life preserver and gazing into the distance, is superimposed over seascape elements. Home (2006) is a haunting still life with three principal elements—andirons, a ball of twine and an earthenware vase filled with roses—placed in the shadowy space of a hearth. The palette is muted. The deep pink of the roses verges on the naturalistic, but the twine’s golden color clearly emanates from a large trapezoidal patch—calling attention to the artifice of construction. The plain wooden chairs and uptilted wheelbarrow of Day of Rest (2006) seem disused, caught in a backwater of time; the effects of age have been translated into irregularities of color and shape. Shurley’s iconography is cryptic and personal, but his priority seems to be aesthetic contemplation rather than an invitation to decipherment. Still Life (2006), a curious composition with bananas parenthetically framing an ornate chalice, becomes a study in smoky gold and umber. A teacher, lecturer and author, Shurley has also designed book jackets for Random House, St. Martin’s Press and Harcourt-Brace. It is easy to see how his work, with its aura of elusive narrative, fits into this niche, but in a gallery setting the subtleties of his surfaces becomes paramount.  John Pence Gallery, 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109. Telephone (415) 441-1138. On the Web at

American Arts Quarterly, Fall, 2006, Volume 23, Number 4