Eugene Dobos is a Taos painter and sculptor with boundless energy and enthusiasm for life and art. He is a bluntly honest and articulate conversationalist, and any discussion is punctuated by expressive gesturing and steady pacing. Energy crackles around him as he hurls himself into an argument or painting. He speaks with a magisterial boom, relishing the delivery of each word.
He was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Russia, on Christmas Day. When he was eleven years old he nearly lost his life: a live grenade he was tinkering with exploded in his hand. He lost one eye and all his fingers except two. Dobos makes the loss seem inconsequential. He pursues such active interests as cross-country skiing, throwing and collecting boomerangs, breeding and racing homing pigeons, gathering fire wood, shooting skeet and collecting Mannlicher Schonauer rifles.
His evolution as an artist has been marked by phases that appear radically different from each other, but share a common thread of humor, vulnerability, pain and love of beauty. The paintings that launched his success were somewhat cynical portrayals of human foibles, often featuring angels, devils, or members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. His targets were pompous and inflated egos, and snobbery of all forms. After nearly two decades of such sly prickings, Dobos put down his brush, laid himself down on the living room couch, and after a year of counting vigas he got up and devoted himself to sculpture. He created puzzling and provocative juxtapositions of familiar objects that tweaked our expectations, challenged our prejudices of the way we see. Some of the pieces were large and velvet-covered; others were small, mirror-lined boxes, often containing flowers. One, a mirrored box which contained a dark brown velvet rose placed above a damaged brass bullet shell, had a disturbing symbolism that echoed Dobos’s interest in illusion and touched on such varied associations as coffins, sex, beauty, castration, and death. From the boxes Dobos returned to painting, though his focus was still on flowers. He painted large canvases of roses, lilies, and hollyhocks. A trip to Arizona led to an interest in cacti, and he painted them as abstract, phallic shapes, with a painterly mélange of color.
He is now experimenting with Krylon spray paint and stencils, painting multiple shadows of dead aspen leaves and hollyhocks across a silver surface. Colors are subtle, interlacing with velvety blacks and grays, and evaporating like smoke. He calls them “my charred flowers . . . look at how gracefully they die . . .” The effect is bittersweet.
About his approach to art, Dobos says: “That’s my repertoire. It’s like writing music: a composer has more than one song, and I have more than one in me, too. It’s all playing. Spray paint is my new toy.” The following conversation with Lois Gilbert began with a discussion of that the interview should be about:
I just read the interview you did with Marian Love for the Santa Fean in 1979. Did you like the way it was written?
My God . . . that was incredible. We drank two bottles of champagne and I just raved about everything. I thought she would edit a little, but she wrote down the whole conversation—it was insane! It was fun.
I like the way she portrayed you, as a renaissance man with a lot of joie de vivre.
Well, I don’t want to talk about any of the old stuff. No history. That’s all water under the bridge. Let’s just talk about me and my work as we are now. I’m a hell of an interesting guy, you know.
O.K. Why do you have so much work here? Are you planning a show soon?
No, no! There’s too much promotion going on. Too much Madison Avenue. Artists should stay home and work.
So you stay and home and come up with a new batch of Doboses every two or three years?
Sometimes change isn’t commercially feasible. But that shouldn’t stop you from evolving.
It stops a lot of people. But you’re right: when you paint for money, you look in the mirror in the morning and it says, “There’s a hypocrite.” That’s not a good feeling—I don’t care how much money you make. When I get up in the morning my mirror says, “There’s a good man.” That’s worth everything.
Isn’t an artist entitled to some financial security, though?
It’s not true to art! Security and art are like oil and vinegar. Art is revolutionary. Artists are a bunch of malcontents.
What about Renoir? He was successful, married and happy. Was he a revolutionary?
Yes. A revolutionary is a malcontent. Someone who is dissatisfied with the status quo. A normal person will say, “Gee, that’s a beautiful mountain.” An artist can’t leave it alone. He will say, “Yeah, that’s a beautiful mountain, but wait until I get done with it!” That is the process. And that’s revolutionary.
That seems like egomania!
Believe me: it takes a lot of ego to take a clean canvas and screw it up.
Some artists are trying to get away from that ego-oriented art, though. One of Andy Warhol’s famous quotes was, “Wouldn’t you love to be a machine?”
Well, I could be a choo-choo train for that matter. But now you’re talking about what kind of revolutionary you are. The process is a subversive process. The process is the kick. By-product is by-product. If you sell it you sell it, if you don’t you don’t. But the process of inventing and bringing things forth—that’s where it’s at.
What is your process?
There are no two people who proceed alike. But I am very much concerned with man in the contemporary world, now. Each generation has a unique dilemma. Resolutions of past dilemmas are applicable in part, but anyone who calls himself a contemporary artist is someone dealing with contemporary problems. Artists have a finger on the pulse of society. They say, “What’s happening?” It’s a wonderful phrase. “What’s happening!” When Russia was on the brink of revolution in 1917, there was total chaos. So what do the Russian artists start doing? Russian Constructivism. If you cannot achieve order in society, the need for order is still there. So they constructed tidy little worlds of their own. It was very original, but unfortunately short-lived. It was the great beginning of Russian Modern Art. But then Stalin took over and stomped it all out. The outlook of the Communist state on art is completely different from ours. No matter what you do, it’s for the State. In that climate a truly creative mind cannot exist.
So the process is like making whisky. Artists have a facility to distill the confusion of the world, and synthesize it—crystalize it—and bring it forth. Have you ever watched people make whisky? You take all the mash, and it’s the most goddamn smelly awful crap you ever saw . . . and then it comes out this exquisite Scotch.
If an artist synthesizes contemporary dilemmas, that sounds political to me—and limited in its appeal.
You can look at it in political terms. Or religious terms. Jesus Christ was not content with the status quo. So you don’t have to be politically oriented to be a revolutionary.
But how do your paintings distill contemporary dilemmas?
Well, if I have to explain that, my paintings are falling on deaf ears, or they’re falling apart.
Falling on deaf ears? Why not blind eyes?
Blindness is too terrible to even mention. No, I don’t think paintings should be explained, especially by an artist.
|Sunflower, construction, 24x24x8 inches|
Well . . . I’ve been going to the Taos Ski Valley for many years. In the last few years I’ve noticed that the spruces on one side of the canyon are turning brown. They are dying. I’m not a bleeding-heart conservationist, but I started looking into it and discovered it’s being caused by carbon monoxide. And the Saguaro cacti are falling dead in the desert because of carbon monoxide. I think it’s a very contemporary dilemma.
Aren’t your paintings commenting on death rather than carbon monoxide?
Of course! But carbon monoxide brought it to my attention. It’s part of the collective consciousness. It comes down to dichotomies: life and death, good and evil, yin-yang. But we are in a new dilemma: Mother Nature’s breasts are running out of milk. And I think of this as I do my work.
Could I watch you paint a painting?
Sure. I prepared the backgrounds on these with about five coats of silver spray paint. It’s a very elusive surface. It looks flat now, but when you move to the side—
It shimmers. I like the texture of the morilla board under that silver. The dimples look like waves on an ocean. Do you use anything but stencils and spray paint?
No. One of these days I’m going to blow myself up, keeping these spray cans by the stove. It’s ironic; I’m using these spray cans to paint about pollution, and they’re destroying the ozone layer. Now we want this to be ghostly. In the early morning, when dreams and reality fuse . . . that’s the feeling I want. That’s the best time to create. This is the opposite action of action painting. It’s meditative.
Do you meditate?
No. Why should I?
You can induce dreams.
My God! I live in them! No, I tried it once and I got scared. It got out of control . . . Beautiful, eh? Sometimes you almost have to will it on there.
You’re going to cover up all that nice black?
In order to create something, you have to destroy something. In order to get fed, you have to kill something, right? It’s silly to be a vegetarian. People say they won’t kill animals, so they kill plants instead. What’s the difference? They’re all living things.
You must remember, we are playing. In order to play you have to take risks. If we want security we can go to Brooks Brothers and buy a tweed jacket. Come hell or high water we know we can go to Brooks Brothers. If you’re still insecure, vote Republican. Those who know how to play are artists. Those who cannot play—collect.
It looks like fun.
It is fun. Why do you think artists get hooked on this? I consider myself a paint junkie. Now I’m a goddamn Krylon junkie . . . You might think I know what I am doing. You are wrong! Now, let’s have a rehearsal on this piece of paper. You are sitting on my stencil, Lois.
Sorry. Does it bother you to have someone watching?
I love an audience! I love to show off.
|Death and the Maiden, spray paint and stencil|
Are you really thinking about death?
Of course. This is Death and the Maiden. How do you make death more deadly? Introduce a maiden, a virgin, an unfulfilled life. (Dobos bumps the stencil, it moves slightly and leaves a tiny smear.) But you do not put blemishes on maidens. Son of a bitch!
The world is ready for romanticism. Where else can we go from Ellsworth Kelly? But don’t get me wrong, I love Ellsworth Kelly.
Is death a part of your romanticism?
Sure! It’s like God. You can make it as abstract and romantic as you want. One fellow went to Heaven and came back. His friends asked him, “Did you see God?” He said, “Sure.” They said, “What does He look like?” He said, “She’s black.”
Did thoughts about death go into those huge flowers you painted last year?
When did you start thinking about it?
When I went through my mid-life crisis, that’s when! I realized you gotta cut out the bullshit. But nature devised death to be merciful. I don’t know why people are afraid of it. Let’s see what we can do before it comes. I choose to be a revolutionary, and the result of my revolution is a state of elevation. After Handel wrote The Messiah he said, “I went to Heaven and saw God Himself.” That is what the process is like. In making art, man elevates his spirit and celebrates his royalty.
Is this finished?
Eugene Dobos shows at the Heydt-Bair Gallery, Santa Fe; CJS Gallery, Denver and Putney Gallery, Aspen.
--Lois Gilbert, April 1981