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Unpainterly Painting: One Artist’s Darkly Beautiful Imagery

Jerusalem-born, New York-based artist Uri Dotan employs a technologically savvy practice of transferring digital images onto canvases. It’s a rather slick way of making “paintings” that don’t demand the old-fashioned brushwork the traditional, handmade variety require. His darkly beautiful imagery glaringly lacks evidence of the human touch, as in his latest show, at the Paul Rodgers 9W Gallery in New York through June 21, which consists mostly of stills of surveillance footage taken from a camera mounted in the window of his studio.

The manufactured wall pieces, cool and standoffish in mood, straddle a line between abstraction and figuration, evoking more than they represent. Shadowy, semirecognizable scenes might remind one of Gerhard Richter paintings, were they not so utterly unpainterly.

Dotan’s “new-media” work has an iciness that one associates with technology. It frustrates any human desire to ascribe meaning or narrative. By recording his surroundings according to no particular agenda, Dotan firmly establishes his own haunting presence as an observer of urban life and effectively captures the cacophony of multiple realities occurring in a single locale.

In total, his new show includes 16 digital prints on canvas and two videos: one projected on canvas, another projected on a wall. Much ado is made over a blue uniform weirdly left abandoned on the sidewalk, belly-down, arms and legs outstretched in the series “Left Behind.” Dotan hones in on a zippered sleeve in one image. Two others focus on crimson splatter marks on the sidewalk nearby: gloopy, half-dried stains that look obviously like blood and beg the obvious question of what happened. Violence? An accident? Food spilled? Whose uniform was it? Is the mess on the ground related to the clothing left behind? The urban still life is so mundane and inscrutable that it has a profoundly lonely mood.

Other images from “The Blue Streets” series are less crisply focused, and are tinted blue. One can discern figures in some of these, like “Pointer” (2003), in which a figure clad in black clutches a white portfolio under one arm while gracefully extending the other arm toward the left-hand side of the picture plane. “Watchman” (2002) shows a torso glowing in white shirtsleeves, marching forward. My favorite image in the show is the most abstract: a blue and black composition with a radiant, mysterious milky blob in the lower right-hand corner. Its title, “White Trash” (2003), reveals both the image’s unglamorous source and the artist’s subtle sense of humor.

A third series of canvases, “Disintegrating Spheres” (all 2003), is a warm-up for one of Dotan’s projected videos. All of these show planet-like orbs, montages of street scenes spliced together as if along the seams of a volleyball. Orderly aspects of the street are made disorderly, as in a funhouse mirror: people walking in a line, traffic stripes painted on the street and angles of buildings become warped and rather trippy, digitally bent as if along a round surface. This is, of course, especially true of the animated piece, easily the most innovative work in the exhibition. A soundtrack of noises from the street accompanies the kaleidoscopically morphing, projected sphere, which is rather like looking in 16 rearview mirrors at once. Random voices can be discerned: “Cross the street, you gotta get to the other side, don’t you?”; “I love it!”; “I don’t feel anything at all. I don’t like this part of the street because it’s filled with these awful bumps.” (Dotan collected these quotes from random people he interviewed on the street, asking them how they felt about it.)

Dotan’s second video, “Activation” (2003), however, is the show’s coup de théâtre. Viewed in a small room in the dark, images morph into one another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, accompanied by a sparse, highly innovative soundtrack composed by the artist’s friend and frequent collaborator, jazz musician Ornette Coleman. (In exchange, Dotan will provide visuals for a concert by the Ornette Coleman Trio on June 25 at Carnegie Hall.) Flashes of light and an androgynous face of ambiguous race rotate as if on one of Dotan’s planets, this the most lyrical and opiate of them all.

Sarah Valdez is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in Art in America, ARTnews, Paper and Interview, among other publications.

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