JAMES DOOLIN WAS ALREADY AN ESTABlished artist in New York and Australia when he came west to attend UCLA's graduate program in 1967. Under the influence of Los Angeles, he gradually moved away from his abstract “Artificial Landscapes” to the saturated photo-realism for which he is best known. His paintings were successful in a way that is rare and precious — they enabled us to see the places we overlook every day and to recognize that, in spite of its ominous industrial overtones, the city is shot through with a luminous, electric vitality and a psychological potency verging on the mythic.
In the early '70s, Doolin spent four years on a major work titled Shopping Mall — a large-scale, detailed aerial view of the intersection of Arizona Avenue and Third Street in Santa Monica — which established his reputation as an important contemporary interpreter of the Western landscape. After a fertile exile to the Mojave Desert, he returned to the urban environment of L.A., and in the '90s began documenting it with a complex ambivalence and virtuosic formal sensibility that teetered between allegorical and deadpan realism. In his vertiginous depictions of negative social spaces — bus stops, empty billboards, the dry trough of the L.A. River, the concrete islands between freeway onramps — he managed an unlikely marriage between the lurid sublimity of California landscape tradition and the postindustrial apocalyptic melancholy of J.G. Ballard. The suspicion of easy cynicism was belied by the meticulous craftsmanship of the work — Doolin's compositions, and his subtle but consummate depiction of light, were seldom short of breathtaking.
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
His persistence and vision began to pay off in popular and critical acclaim. In 1994, Doolin was chosen to create four large murals for the new downtown headquarters of the MTA, resulting in Los Angeles Circa 1870, 1910, 1960 and After 2000 — a monumental chronicle of the unbelievably rapid transformation of the bucolic frontier into what the artist described as the “huge, organic circuit board” of the near future. His collaborative design with sculptor and tile artist Anne-Marie Karlsen for the North Hollywood Station of the Red Line was one of the most well-received of the generally disparaged Metro Rail projects, whose drawn-from-a-hat teams of architects, artists and engineers made for a heterogeneous mishmash of styles that only occasionally resolved into a cohesive concept. Public recognition continued to grow as his 1991 work East Wind — one of his signature freeway paintings — was used as the cover of Mike Davis' controversial best-seller Ecology of Fear. His studies for the MTA murals made up the bulk of “James Doolin: Selected Works 1983Present,” the inaugural exhibition of Cal State Fullerton's adventurous Grand Central Art Center early in 1999.
“Some Los Angeles Icons,” Doolin's last solo show at Koplin Gallery in 2000 (his first local gallery show in eight years), finally overcame the L.A. art establishment's prejudice against pictorialism and regionalism, winning critical accolades and an even greater following of artists, collectors and other cognoscenti. Last year one of the works from that show, the mesmerizing, masterful Psychic, became the highlight of the traveling exhibition “Representing L.A.,” and a retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art (with fellow urban-landscape painter Chester Arnold) titled “Urban Invasion” solidified his reputation as a major Los Angeles artist.
James Doolin, age 70, succumbed to a pulmonary fibrosis on July 22. It is a terrific loss to the L.A. art world that his recent momentum was cut short, but we're lucky to have been shown as much as we have. I'll never look at freeways the same way again.
A memorial is being planned for September; interested parties should contact Koplin Gallery for details, (310) 657-9843.