Robert Donley

Hokin Kaufman Gallery

Robert Donley has chosen a grand, challenging, and unwieldy theme for his work. His canvases purport to record no less than the life of the modern city, as manifested in its buildings and in its residents. In their encyclopedic patterning and patience, their sense of self-composure and slow-moving surety, Donley’s images remind us of forebears such as Bosch and Bruegel, artists who also knew the value of accretion in the development of their expansive themes.

In each of the ten paintings that made up this exhibition, Donley surrounds an urban skyline with small portraits. In some of the paintings his figures number just a few dozen, and are set into the foreground or act as a decorative border around the larger cityscape. In more recent canvases, though, the city is almost immersed within a sea of hundreds of heads, seemingly engulfed by its own progeny. This city is sometimes Donley’s native Chicago, but is more often a composite made up of skyline elements recognizable from Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Donley renders this city in a kind of barely mediated, funky, assumed naive style. Everything is set up strictly parallel to the picture plane, each of the hundreds of skyscrapers and houses have their windows carefully (but not slavishly) articulated, and each house has its own individual wisp of chimney smoke lovingly described.

This interest in occasional and selective detail, coupled with a lack of concern for verisimilitude, extends into the multitudes who array themselves in careful rows. In Urban Exposure, 1988, the several hundred figures accompanying a pentagonal cityscape run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous; they also raise unanswered questions. What brings together small portraits of Cher, Joseph Stalin, Socrates, Elijah Muhammed, Madonna, the Madonna and Child, Andy Warhol, George Washington, Pee-wee Herman (twice!) and John Huston? Why are these figures interspersed among the many more anonymous members of Donley’s retinue, and set here amidst a pig, a gorilla, a swami, a nun, a shark, and a Torah? Why in the four corners of his painting has Donley set up four scenes evoking—reading clockwise from upper left—figures from the Tawana Brawley case, women wearing hats, Picasso and his loves, and a variant of Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom? It is pictorial glut, as unwieldy and irrational, jumbled and chaotic, additive and fast-paced, delightful and variegated, vulgar and noble as the city itself. It is a tapestry with just a few of the many stories from the naked city: an iconography of polyphony, a stubborn melting pot that will never melt. Donley is an accomplished Linnaean who names the important things that can never be fully described; his irreducible city brings together place and people in a state of perpetual inventory.

James Yood