The Art of D. Dominick Lombardi: Deciphering the Unconscious

D. Dominick Lombardi
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In the late fifties my parents purchased a 1956 edition of the American Peoples Encyclopedia. I vaguely remember their being stressed about affording the encyclopedias, since my family had just moved into a home my father built himself, and we didn’t have much money left over, even for furniture. Despite his trepidations over the purchase price, my father carefully measured and built a bookcase for the encyclopedias so they would be safely stored until their future use. One day, when I was about three or four years old, I pulled down one of the books, opened it, and saw an image of Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece, Guernica (1939).

Whistling Bird, 1998, Wood, acrylic and plastic laundry soap bottle, 16.5 x 17 x 13.5 inches 

At that time I had no idea what I was looking at, but when I saw the image, a painting that expressed the collateral damage of the Spanish Civil War in one Basque town as an abstracted event, I was mesmerized. Right then and there, I knew on some deep level that I was face to face with a most significant and meaningful picture, not only based on the feeling I got from it, but that it was found in one of those very important books that seemed to both disturb and enhance my family’s lives. Later, I must have visited that painting, then located at the Museum of Modern Art, at least twenty times before it was sent back to Spain in 1981. I cherished every moment I spent with that painting, as it taught me so much about the power of art. 

A second pivotal incident happened about three or four years later, when my family visited my father’s parents in Southeast Yonkers. They had a tenant in the basement apartment, an elderly gentleman who smoked a pipe, and walked with a cane. I guess he spoke with my parents and grandparents, and found out that my brother and I liked to draw and paint. So one afternoon we were told to go down and visit him in his dimly lit, basement hideaway, and that he would play a picture game with us. 

Cyborg Family, 1975, charcoal on paper and acrylic on masonite, 22 x 28 inches

We three sat at his kitchen table, illuminated by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, where he gave us each a piece of paper with five lines drawn across it. He did this a number of times, and each time he would ask us to draw something recognizable, using those five lines as a beginning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was teaching me about abstract art. I still occasionally approach my work the same way, balancing the conscious with the subconscious, or the non-representational with the figurative. 

My other significant early influences were comic books and Mad magazine. In the late 1960s, when I discovered Zap comix, everything abruptly and profoundly changed. Zap was an underground, counterculture magazine unlike anything I had seen before. It made me realize that the world was a very different place from what I had imagined, and the influences of both highbrow works like Guernica, and lowbrow popular culture would stick with me. I’ve always tried to balance those two ends of the spectrum, and would eventually find a number of artists who also combined the high/low approach, such as Francis Picabia, Peter Saul, and Philip Guston.

Early in my twenties my interest in science fiction spawned the Cyborgs series. This consisted of ink drawings, acrylic paintings on canvas, a few box-dioramas and one multimedia room/installation, all featuring scenes filled with cyborg people and animals. Much of the art I created at that time has since been re-purposed or swallowed up by future works, however, my imaginings of what a half-biological being–half-machine might look like still exists in a few remaining works from that time.

In the late-seventies I began a series of oil paintings based on the theory that every day was a new challenge for discovery, and that I would be responding to my ideas and materials in a vastly different way each time. This was also the time when I made a month-long, cross-country camping trip that really opened my eyes to the beauty and diversity of the land, its people and critters. In addition, the fact that I was away from the studio, and out of my comfort zone, enabled me to see my ideas from a different point of view. 

Shadows, 1978, oil on linen , 54 x 48 inches

This in turn, pushed my conceptual thinking, eventually leading me to Mixing Isms. This meant that during each studio session I would allow myself to paint based on the way I felt, with any degree of abstraction or representation I wished regardless of what I had done the day before, or what I had planned for the following day. As a result, the narratives in the paintings were very loose and lively, precariously tied together by old photographs I referenced, or some wild and imaginary vignette that began as a preliminary sketch. In a critique of a solo show I had in Manhattan at that time, the critics Don Gray and Jessie Benton Evans Gray categorized my painting style as “convulsive obsessive”, a comment I was proud to share with others. 

From Photographs are works that immediately followed my marriage to Diane, as well as our subsequent trip to Italy in 1980. I suspect that seeing all of the incredible figurative art in museums, churches and institutes drove me back closer to being a representational artist, but it didn’t last long.

Bar, 1985, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

My East Village series piqued my desire to re-explore other approaches to making art, especially Expressionism and Surrealism, and led me back to my interest in blending lowbrow and highbrow art. During the seventies I found it difficult to find a gallery that would exhibit anything not considered highbrow. If work could be labeled “illustrative” it was not considered serious art. 

“Near the end of 1986 I was in a car accident that left me temporarily paralyzed with cervical cord neurapraxia.”

The short-lived East Village art scene of the eighties was a tremendous breath of fresh air for me, and many other like-minded artists, as it brought narrative driven figurative painting back to New York. Two exhibitions that I saw at that time had a great influence on me. The first was Expressionism: A German Intuition 1905-1920; the second was Italian Art Now: An American Perspective, both shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and both profoundly eye-opening and enlightening to me, as they galvanized my interest in mixing Expressionism and Surrealism.

Near the end of 1986 I was in a car accident that left me temporarily paralyzed with cervical cord neurapraxia. Immobilized by pain and sleepless nights, I had quite a bit of time to think about my work, and decided that when I was able to create art again, I would make the messages in my narratives more broadly meaningful. At first, I was only able to stand or sit comfortably for short periods of time, so I began to design and make tools and stencils, and look for other devices to create visual effects in my paintings.

French Guests, 1987, oil on canvas, 50 x 38 inches

In doing so, I was reconnecting with my father and grandfather who taught me the proper use of tools and the basics of construction when I worked with them as a carpenter’s assistant in my early adolescence. I also found inspiration in techniques used by Max Ernst, such as decalcomania, grattage, and frottage, which pushed me to invent and experiment. The work in my Drawing+Painting series came out of this, while I began to inject a bit more humor in my work, as I reacted to the social issues of the time. 

By the time I was back on my feet I was beginning to move toward sculpture; adding carved and found wooden objects to my Drawing+Paintings, which I now call Carving+Painting. With this new combination of 2D and 3D elements, I began to re-purpose wood and other materials, which eventually led to the creation of freestanding sculptures. The Carving+Painting works also brought me back to my Mixing Isms days, as I treated the different materials separately from the whole, but made sure they could fit together in a cohesive way. 

Right Borg, 1989, acrylic on carved found wood with objects, 30 x 14 x 12 inches

Aesthetically, those first sculptures were largely linked in my mind to such earlier art movements as Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism and Dada, as those first twenty-five years of the twentieth century always were to me, the golden age of modernism.

My Early Sculptures were also links to my past, first to my introduction to carpentry tools when I was young, and secondly to my grandfather’s obsession with recycling reusable construction materials. As a boy, I spent most of the time working with him and my father, taking wood from the demolition pile, removing the bent nails, and cutting off the rotted parts of the wood so the good portions could be reused. As a result of these influences, all of these sculptures are made of carved and painted found wood from discarded furniture, broken baseball bats, and any interesting metal, ceramic or plastic objects I could recover.

During my second trip to Europe in 1990, I was captivated by the Street Performers who were often seen serenading in town squares, where I found layer upon layer of posted bills. Soon, I began peeling off bits and pieces of the posted bills in an attempt to capture the color, text and culture of the time. When I returned to my studio I produced a small series of purposely kitschy works, using those materials to represent the street performers. There were a few large paintings, mixed media works that combined collage, gesso, and pencil on wood, one life-sized sculpture carved from a fallen cherry tree and a kinetic piece using a record player.

Another series from the early nineties was Repurposed Paintings. I used what I considered to be failed paintings, often cutting them into sections and eroding them with rasps and sandpaper to create transitional works by over-painting with oils. The new subjects were somewhat symbolic, and had little or no connection to the content of the previous work. Using my own paintings from decades before would crop up in various series, right up to my current work, continuing my use of reclaimed materials.

Left: Vessel Assemblage #1, 1993, mixed media, 38 x 20 x 17 inches

In the mid-nineties I worked in printmaking, sculpture (one kinetic), painting, and drawing creating the Vessels, which explored the many ways of defining the term “vessel” in both the tangible and the abstract. Again, I used previously created work, mined from the drawings I did in my late teens, and my first paintings made when I was ten to thirteen years old.  

The Reverse Collage series came next, in 1995. These works featured multiple layers of newspaper, book or magazine pages that were adhered to wood panels or Plexiglas, and later torn or eroded away in controlled areas to reveal some or all of the underside text and images. The painted areas, which varied between geometric hard-edge and biomorphic shapes, were designed to place the simple layouts of the collage elements within a modern or contemporary aesthetic. The purpose was to address both the absurdity of the juxtapositions and the natural geometry of the layouts.

Pre-Raphaelite Premie, 2000, acrylic on Plexiglas (reverse painted), 28 x 22 inches

In the late nineties, I began the Post Apocalyptic Tattoos that later evolved into the Graffoos. A few years earlier my daughter Lora had been born, and having a child gave me a completely new way of seeing the world, totally influencing my thinking about our planet’s future. While creating the work for the Post Apocalyptic Tattoos I visited Iceland three times, twice in 2001, in January and then later in August, just before the overwhelming tragedies and loss of 9-11; then again in October, 2004 when the world had become a vastly different and dangerous place. During that last trip, the familiar landscape in Iceland was accompanied by overpowering winds. It made me realize how isolating an island nation could be, how hard it would be to be truly alone, as I found myself thinking back to a time when this otherworldly landscape was first colonized, more than a millennium ago. It was that feeling, which increased my understanding of a post apocalyptic world

The Post Apocalyptic Tattoo and Graffoo series is my most complex project to date, as it took place over eleven years, encompassing four phases, eighty reverse paintings on Plexiglas, one-thousand India ink drawings, seventeen sculptures, more than one-hundred paintings on canvas and canvas board, and a number of prints, all based on a few thousand preliminary drawings. I am a strong believer in the collective unconscious, which is based on the theory that we draw memory and experience from the past. If that is the case, then one could extract images and observations from the future, since time is a social construct and doesn’t actually exist. So, if I were to channel some future artist in a post apocalyptic world, and that artist worked in tattoo, then the resulting designs would be a form of future flash.

The mutations in the anatomy that devastate the subjects of this work are a result of centuries of exposure to transgenic foods, polluted air and water and various other environmental problems. The later Graffoos were largely about the environment and what the future landscape would look like. These works were built by placing tattoo designs on preexisting paintings. Some were very abstract, as I occasionally used cut up sections of my old work to paint over with tattoo designs, hence the term Graffoo, a combination of graffiti and tattoo. Eventually, the Post Apocalyptic Tattoos became a traveling one-person exhibition curated by the art critic and feature writer Carol Kino, and was presented at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center in San Antonio, Texas in 2008, and the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2009.

Tattooed Tokyo #7, 2008, acrylic on unprimed canvas, 48 x 36 inches

The Tattooed Tokyo series was made soon after my first trip to Japan and South Korea in 2008. I was there for a solo show at Gallery Milieu in Tokyo, and that trip really opened my eyes to just how distinctive and surprising a distant land could be. The Tattooed Tokyo series was based on my observations of Japanese culture, combined with new designs of mutant creatures and past Head India ink brush drawings from the Post Apocalyptic Tattoo series. The inspiration for creating a repetitive overlapping character came from Takashi Murakami’s 2005 speech at the Japan Society in New York during his newly curated show Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. When asked what his two biggest influences were, he responded, “Godzilla and the puppet government set up by the United States after World War II”. I remembered that answer, and noticed the obsession in Japan with cute, colorful, cartoon-like, mutated characters that appeared in everything from product logo designs to cell phone adornments.

With the downturn in the global economy in 2008, I began to focus my attention on the Street Urchins. These were sculptures and mixed media drawings that depicted marginalized people and animals that lived challenging existences due to the economic decline. The use of repurposed and discarded materials to create these sculptures now had a new message, as it enhanced the ‘forgotten’ state of the street urchin. It was also a time when I obsessed about the innocent victims of the growing drug related violence in Mexico. 

The structural composition of these sculptures was quite challenging to viewers, because of their preconceptions of sand as an impermanent medium. In reality, the sand and acrylic medium mix that was applied, layer upon layer over an armature of wood and found objects, was as
durable as concrete. The portion of the ‘innards’ comprised of found plastic related directly to the dumping of trash into our oceans, and how those materials end up finding their way into the digestive tracts of foraging sea life and birds, eventually killing them. 

For most of my career, I have leaned heavily on the collective unconscious. I have had a number of out-of-body experiences when painting, mostly in my twenties and thirties, and I remember briefly seeing myself from the side, and a bit above me as I worked in the studio. Beginning in 2013, the Shift Paintings, which came right after the Street Urchins, were works prompted by bursts of images from the collective unconscious. Some of the paintings have direct links to familiar masterworks, while others address more current cultural observations. These were also works where a more distinct lowbrow influence was becoming more dominant and desirable to me. The Shift Paintings were so named, because I knew something else would be materializing soon, but had to cook for a while. I needed something substantial to get my mind working, and allow the next big series to grow into fruition.

Between 2014 and 2017, I created the series Saints, Sinners and the Collective

Unconscious. The works in this group were my attempt to explore the sources, signs, and suppositions of human behavior. The paths we take, the lives we lead, and the decisions we make, are born of many foundations, both learned and innate. We see the tenets and intricacies of morality presented through familial teaching, the laws of the land, and the traditions of our various religions. Yet in the end, we must decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.

I like to think I have two basic opportunities to make decisions in my life. One is within society, and the other is in the studio. In public, a set of norms and ethics guide my behavior. Privately, in my studio, I prefer to delve into my unconscious in the hope of finding a connection to an endless stream of ideas, dreams, emotions and realizations that knows no boundaries. This is my personal freedom.

First, I looked at moral issues. Christian saints were chosen based on their level of devotion, especially if they were martyred for their beliefs. Sinners were represented by pop culture icons, stars who created fear in the minds of older generations, as they represented sexual freedom and anarchy. The collective unconscious is represented by layers of imagery, beginning with a page from the once popular magazine, Holiday, overlapped by collaged automatic drawings, then painted with connecting lines and shapes, all made to look like they had been cut directly out of someone’s home wall.

Saint Kateri, 2015, oil on previously painted canvas on board (c 1966), artist’s frame, 21 x 27 inches

I also created a fake CIA letter, as part of the series, to suggest a connection between the collective unconscious and Project MKUltra, the code name for a CIA mind control program. My idea was that our innate ability to connect unconsciously with others from the past, present and future was, and is, a threat and a curiosity for the powers that be. Many of the Saints, Sinners and Collective Unconscious pieces were shown in my solo exhibition at the Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2017. 

Below, left: CCAC-25, 2018, acrylic and ink on paper on carved found wood, papier-mâché mixed with acrylic medium and found objects, 21 x 14 x 12 inches

I am currently revisiting a project I began working and thinking about more than twenty years ago. The Cross Contamination+Stickers began in 1998 with Whistling Bird, a sculpture that looked at how transgenic food companies combined animal DNA with plant DNA to make our supermarket fruits and vegetables more resistant to pests and rot. I felt then, and now, that this a dangerous practice, as we do not totally know, or understand, the future consequences to our planet, our food and our bodies. Whistling Bird was one unique work, and as the series stalled so did my inspiration. Soon, my thoughts would move to a distant time and to another series, the Post Apocalyptic Tattoo, and the Cross Contamination series was put on hold until 2017.

CCAC-8, 2018, ink on paper and acrylic on album cover, 12 1/2 x 12 ½ inches

As I worked on the Shift Paintings, I again began thinking about Cross Contamination, and how varied the concept could be, encompassing everything from difficult material combinations and mixed metaphors, to abrupt changes in the narrative with the passage of long spans of time. This series is a way of gathering the minutiae of my uncontrollable, and often difficult to understand thoughts, and organizing them into something tangible.

I made a second trip to Japan in late 2017, studying the art and artists of the Fukui Prefecture on the west coast of the main island, Honshu. There, I came to know a very different Japan from my first visit, when I spent the bulk of my time in Tokyo. Fukui is rural, quite mountainous, and home to an ancient paper making facility in Imadate. When I returned home, I began looking for ways to incorporate paper into my work, and came up with the idea of making one-of-a-kind, hand drawn stickers. Why stickers? It relates to my obsession with mixing highbrow with lowbrow, and to the current movement of artist-generated stickers being placed on just about every surface throughout New York City. At first I attached the stickers to partially painted record album covers. Recently, I have been using mixed media sculptures, as well as newly created paintings and older repurposed paintings, as a base for these one-of-a-kind stickers. 

By D. Dominick Lombardi, Contributing Writer

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