Artist to the core

IN an age of anxiety such as ours, art that insists on wholeness or perfection is apt to be dismissed as naive or irrelevant. When reality is perceived as incomprehensible or chaotic, why even bother to try to see it whole? Dutch artist Jan Dibbets thinks differently, as his numerous elegant compositions of circular design demonstrate. For him, art is a search for formal resolutions, for holistic symbolic alternatives to the images of doubt, alienation, and derision that come close to dominating the art of the 1980s.

His approach is as novel as it is difficult and far reaching. He brings together apparently irreconcilable or incompatible themes, mediums, and techniques. He fuses these components as seamlessly as possible into compact images that not only synthesize these elements, but resonate with a powerful sense of wholeness. Thus, abstraction, photography, graphic design, architectural details, conceptual theory, kaleidoscopic effects, and geometric constructions all contribute toward the fashioning of unified and potent abstract pictures that are as beautiful as they are impressive.

These works generally consist of slices of architectural photographs joined together and augmented by delicately drawn and painted design elements to form fanciful 360-degree panoramas of the upper portions of Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Classical, or modern building interiors. The majority are in color and are centered on large sheets of chipboard, and resemble, at first glance, monumental, sensitively tinted drawings or architectural renderings.

Right there, however, any and all resemblances to other forms of art end abruptly, for what Dibbets produces bears no significant relationship to anything else in art today.

Perhaps that's because his orientation is so integrative, so intent upon reconciling the numerous ideas, methods, and attitudes that this century's artistic passions and ideals have only succeeded in pulling apart. Relatively few artists since C'ezanne, after all, have concerned themselves with the total picture. Few have focused on the balancing of thematic and formal opposites, or on the containment, the drawing toward the center, of all the creative energy at their disposal. Most have preferred to hurl that energy about in coloristic explosions (Hans Hofmann), or in melodramatic or exuberant distortions (Thomas Hart Benton, Emil Nolde), or have made only faint attempts to make a work of art a concentrated whole.

Not so Jan Dibbets. Like Brancusi and Mondrian before him, his primary search has been for the most effective way to shape data and energy into compact images that fuse maximum authenticity with maximum impact.

Dibbets's search began in 1959 when, at the age of 18, he enrolled as an art student, first in the Netherlands and then in Antwerp and London. In 1967, he produced his first noteworthy efforts, a series of photographic images he called ``Perspective Corrections.'' These images depicted lawns and other flat areas in which the receding perspective was countered by arbitrarily imposed outlines of geometric forms. And these, in turn, were followed by sets of serial photographs arranged to fashion panoramic landscape and seaside views suggestive of both the passage of time and endless space.

Shortly before 1980, Dibbets embarked on the circular constructions for which he has become known. The first were small and fragile, and lacked the complexity and rich textural effects that make those executed since 1984 so provocative.

In many of the latter, these effects are so cleverly orchestrated that the eye is drawn inward toward the center of the composition and upward toward the depicted building's ceiling or skylight. The eye is simultaneously ``entertained'' along the way by a number of shrewdly placed and precisely delineated architectural and decorative details. These give emphasis where it is called for and add a touch of verisimilitude to critical areas of the composition.

Thus, in ``Cupola,'' the viewer's attention is immediately pulled to the picture's center by an abrupt shift of color from gray to a whitish yellow, and by the perspective effect of several columns receding dramatically upward toward the inner dome. Considerable care was also paid to cropping and overlay, and to the application of watercolor washes to soften transitions from one section to another.

In ``Guggenheim,'' on the other hand, Dibbets fragmented photographs of that museum's spiral ramp, overlapped several of these segments to form a staggered overlay system that leads the eye upward to the composition's center, and enclosed the entire image in a circular form that echoes the museum's own design.

The result is work that appears extremely simple, even obvious, at first glance, but that gradually reveals subtle thematic and formal nuances when viewed for any length of time. Drastically reduced in size (most of his work runs to five or six feet in height or width), and reproduced here without color, Dibbets's creations may seem like little more than handsome designs. But seen in full color and in actual size, it quickly becomes obvious that this is work of high caliber.

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