Moving Through The Layers

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Stinging Nettles (Moving Tentatively), (2009, archival chrogenic print faced into acrylic, 55″ x 40″) 

It’s the artist’s job to convey the truth she sees around her. And while it is true that the greatest artists are those who do not look away from troubling realities and who bare their souls in whatever medium they offer us, it’s also true that the artist does not resist beauty.

In a new exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), works by Yvette Drury Dubinksy offer multi-layered images that reconcile beauty and politics and the artist’s personal life in uncanny ways. Titled Director’s Choice, the show was curated by PAAM Director Christine McCarthy.

“My latest work has dealt in more graphic and figurative terms with the lines and forms that trace the major social and political problems of our time.”

Background image: Nest, 2011 (detail), monotypes, string, found objects, digital prints, hand coloring on paper and film, 40.25 x 63.75”. Courtesy of PAAM.

Just as the artist’s work opens up a dialogue, the curator has
his/her own role to play in mediating our experience of art in society. There are any number of ways that a show can be hung, with all sorts of criteria for inclusion/exclusion. McCarthy, who curates an average of four or five shows at PAAM every year, had a clear vision for curating Dubinsky’s exquisite work. With each one so densely layered in imagery, there were many angles to consider aside from the obvious chronological method of curation. McCarthy decided to follow the instinctive connections she saw between the works, actually not even looking at the years they were made when putting them together.

“It’s more about the aesthetic relationships. That’s how it worked for me; similar materials like string or yarn she’ll use a lot, but then there will be a cyanotype that looks like it had string or yarn when she [exposed] it, so I look at more the palette or the colors and the materials that really link them for me,” McCarthy explains one week before the show is to open. “She relates smell and texture. They’re very textural…. and Nest is really the piece that was the first one that I was very attracted to,” McCarthy recalls. “It’s very large and has East Coast and West Coast because her kids live on the East Coast and West Coast. St. Louis [where she lives off-season] is right in the middle. And then Truro. So it links her whole life… It’s like there’s string and there’s moss and all kinds of stuff. And it was like this piece, I couldn’t stop looking at it because every time I looked at it I’d see something else that I didn’t notice before. And that kind of became the pinnacle piece for me and everything else kind of drew out of that.”

JA Series #3/ Hands Collage, 2001, Van Dyke on Arches paper, 30×30”. Courtesy of PAAM.

It isn’t just which works are included; it’s where they are hung in relation to one another, with specific reference not only to the works’ relationships, but also to the physical space at PAAM. She recalls looking at the work in preparation for the show and making curatorial decisions she usually does later.

“ I typically don’t lay out a show until it’s in the space, but because we have a warehouse based in Truro, I was fooling around with these pieces, and when I finally made my selections, I really could see how this piece feeds into this, feeds into this, over a 30-year span. So she’s taken things that she’s done 30 years ago and she integrates that into what she’s doing now, but they don’t look the same, they don’t feel the same; they have a different feel to them.”

At press time the show had not yet been hung, but McCarthy had several pairings that she really liked. Dubinsky’s work has never been shown in this way, as she works in series and that is the usual way her work has been exhibited. McCarthy’s pairings are not made with regard to staying within a particular series, or even within a specific period. For example, she is thinking of pairing Stinging Nettles (which appears on this week’s cover) created in 2009 with Lips made in 1995. The former is a full color chromogenic print depicting, as you might imagine, nettles. The latter would seem to have no real connection to Nettles. Lips is a deconstruction/reconstruction of a black-and-white image of Dubinsky’s husband’s lips and mustache. But for McCarthy, there was an unintentional connection between the two that she wants us to see.

Maybe Mahindra, 2016, oil monotype and cyanotype on watercolor and Japanese papers, 37.25 × 37.25”. Courtesy of PAAM.

Dubinsky’s work is generally large, created in a variety of geometric shapes with materials ranging from photographs to collage, cyanotypes, monotypes, found objects, and watercolor to name just a few. Perhaps most striking is her use of maps as symbols of migration, the concept of home, and geographic distance. Maybe Mahindra (2016) is a good example of this, with silhouetted figures depicting a range of ages and genders seemingly crossing borders over a map of Turkey and its surrounding region. No doubt these are references to Syrian refugees, but they can also connect with earlier forced migrations of Armenians, for example.

Works such as this one stem from her travels in the Middle East, an excursion she and her husband went on to help a Syrian family. Many of the pieces are profound, beautiful, and ingenious in their use of elements such as pistachios, figs, and the oud (a Middle-Eastern stringed instrument similar to a lute) to represent a highly politicized part of the world that has been represented in narrowly circumscribed terms, whether in cinema, photography, or the daily news. The statement that is made is that these cultures matter, something we are often encouraged to forget as we take sides, associate Arabs and Muslims with terrorism, and lose our sense of humanity with regard to the conflicts that plague the region.

In her statement in the exhibition catalog, Dubinsky states: “My latest work has dealt in more graphic and figurative terms with the lines and forms that trace the major social and political problems of our time. Several recent pieces attempt to come to grips with the struggles and complex interactions I have experienced firsthand as personal acquaintances dealt with the conflict in Syria, a place I have traveled and enjoyed. Witnessing both the shift from people being everyday families to being refugee families, and then separately encountering refugee settlements in Europe, I was drawn to the bitter irony of the subject. To deal with it I needed to make large circular papers.”

But it is not only the subject matter that intrigues McCarthy, it’s also “the way that she works with multiple processes. So she’s using photography, she’s using printmaking, she’s doing collage, she can do digital manipulation. So she’s integrating at least four or five different processes into one thing, and I find that really interesting because I’ve studied photography, I know enough about printmaking just from being here, but watching her take it to the next level has been really interesting for me [in terms of] how do you actually do that? Like how do you make this look like this?” she enthuses.

The most recent work in the show at PAAM was just completed this month. Entitled I am a part of all that I have met, it demonstrates just how Dubinsky uses form to enhance meaning. It is the perfect final addition to this retrospective of an artist who has never lost her sense of direction, never pared down her vision, and always embraced both the beauty and the complexity of modern life.

The exhibition Director’s Choice: Yvette Drury Dubinsky: Here and Gone opens at PAAM, 460 Commercial St., on Friday, April 13 and runs through May 20, with an artist reception at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 4. For more information call 508.487.1750 or visit paam.org.