Dennis Doheny | An Extraordinary Eye

By Virginia Campbell

SURFING DOESN’T TEND TO POP UP IN CONVERSATIONS WITH PAINTERS about the crucial influences on their aesthetic development. Indeed, the quality of light in the California landscape—not to mention the grace, flourish, and ingenuity with which early 20th-century artists like William Wendt and Edgar Payne responded to it—would usually overshadow wave-riding in Santa Barbara, which is painter Dennis Doheny’s assessment of relevant forces in his development. But Doheny was a full-on, dawn-to-dusk, future-be-damned surfer for much of his young life. The importance of all those thousands of hours on the surface of the Pacific Ocean was not just that they left Doheny ill-equipped to do much besides follow through on an early affinity for draftsmanship and painting when it came time to support a family.

The extraordinary eye so evident in Doheny’s work today was cast ad infinitum on water, sky, and distant cliffs while waves took their time setting up behind him during earlier decades of his life. Look at the vivid wetness of the water in any of Doheny’s paintings—it argues against the notion that this part of the artist’s youth was misspent. But the deeper importance of Doheny’s life on the water, which continues today on a more limited basis, must surely be the state of serene anticipation that surfers revel in, and the ecstatic balance in the swirl of time and nature which they experience when a wave rewards their patience. Those emotions are embedded even in Doheny’s driest landscapes. Their authenticity saves the beauty of his work from nostalgia, sentimentality, or any other form of shallowness that obvious beauty can be accused of.

Doheny had his first solo exhibition of landscape paintings at William A. Karges Fine Art in Los Angeles in the fall of 1997, going on 10 years ago. Two-thirds of his paintings in that show sold. That was the last time anything less than every painting sold, and he’s had a show every 18 months since. In 2003 he won the Purchase Prize at the annual Masters of the American West Exhibition at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. Last year he won the Frederic Remington Painting Award at the Prix de West show at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, as well as the Museum Purchase Award at the Eiteljorg Museum’s Quest for the West show.

The painting the Eiteljorg now owns, a knockout titled GUARDIAN OF THE LAKE, serves to explain all the recent attention. It sets you firmly on ground high up in the Sierras, squares your view past rocks and trees toward distant peaks, and unleashes an elegantly composed investigation of every way in which squareness can be exploited to suggest the depth and breadth of landscape, and every way in which paint can be exploited to suggest the universe of blue in sky, water, and shadow. There is a serene exhilaration to the piece that comes from a simultaneous appreciation for just how spacious the space it depicts is, and just how artfully artificial the illusion of that space is.

Featured in February 2007

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