Abstract Expressionism carries an uneasy legacy. Despite the brawling and sexism that built the myth surrounding the original Ab-Ex-ers, to the endless re-wrangling of ol’ Clem Greenberg’s treatises, non-objective painting is an ideological bear with which some artists still choose to wrestle. Among Clement Greenberg’s doom-laden but accessible favorite ideas is this dirge-like sigh: “It is among hopeful signs in the midst of the decay of our present society that we—some of us—have been unwilling to accept this last phase of our own culture.” Even so, critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in a 2007 article, “Like the blues foundations of rock and roll, [Ab-Ex] is easy to learn and it always works, if you can keep the beat.”
Folio Weekly visited local figurative artist Keith Doles at his CoRK Arts District studio.
“I started out as a realist, more into Impressionism,” said Doles, who went on to explain that he’s using the notions embedded in the 1940s-sourced ideology to exorcise personal pain and loss. “I started about two years ago,” said the artist, of the path away from figuration.
Two years ago, Doles felt as if his life were collapsing. His mother, the foundation of the family, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013, and by 2016, Doles and his father had become her full-time caregivers, a transition the artist understatedly describes as “very tough.” In addition, Doles has a full-time job as a graphic designer at Zimmer Biomet, teaches oil painting and acrylic classes at University of North Florida, and maintains a studio at CoRK Arts District.
Even with all this, he was still holding things together. However, after the death of his beloved aunt—the person who in many ways had mentored him in his art career—he physically collapsed. “I took [her death] pretty hard … I was trying to do so much I just passed out on the floor.” His father was there and was able to call Fire & Rescue responders. After that emergency, Doles decided that his own health had to be a part of his self-care.
At this point in the studio visit, he pulled a painting out of his stack. Titled Losing Consciousness, it’s a graphic abstract. He explained it’s a pictorial description of what he recalls of that event. It’s in tones of grey and black, with a small dot in the background. Doles said the world tilted and then he knew nothing else.
Doles credits local painter Princess Simpson Rashid—known for her deep examination of non-objective forms and disciplined palette—for pointing him in this abstract direction, after they’d had many conversations about art, health and spirituality. “This is therapeutic for me.”
The idea that art can be therapeutic and offer comfort to the afflicted (and afflict the comfortable) is not a new one. Many programs exist to tap into the inherent power of creating art to ease mental and physical stressors. While a central tenant of Abstract Expressionism was a rejection of the kitsch or folk in search of the absolute, there is certainly ample evidence to suggest that artists like Ad Reinhardt and Jackson Pollock were not only pursuing an ideology, they were channeling emotions into their work. Indeed, Pollock once famously said that he chose to express his feelings rather than illustrate them.
“After the show at Yellow House last year [Life Under Construction with Rashid], people who came to the opening saw our work and said it was really touching. There were other people who were going through similar situations and just seeing the artwork gave them a release. I remember one woman who just started to break down in tears. She said that reading the material and looking at the works made her remember. And it confirmed to me that art has that power to soothe people and console them,” said Doles.
For his part, the artist said he’s less specifically interested in the American Abstractionists, though he said he can’t help but acknowledge Franz Kline. “I was attracted to his bridges, but the thing I couldn’t get with him was his large, one-color brush strokes, because I like color too much.”
Instead, he said, he looks to Jacob Lawrence of the Harlem Renaissance and the German expressionist Ernst Kirchner. These ideas are explicitly explored in a suite of works that use construction sites as a metaphor for the artist rebuilding his health. In these mixed-media works, the sketched outlines of structures stand against panels of colors and the artist’s own photos. “I was looking at steel and concrete and rods because they’re the foundation.”
Of Keith Doles’ work, Yellow House director Hope McMath said: “Previously, I knew Keith as an artist and a figurative painter, but this show was specific to his experience as a person moving through a time of caregiving and his own health crisis. His worked evolved into the abstract as he dug deep into the feelings and fears of watching his mom’s health deteriorate and living through the trauma triggered by these changes. Keith was distilling the physical and emotional landscape of that time through the lenses of color, texture and emotion.”
Though Doles has been participating in the art scene here in Jacksonville since 2001, until relatively recently, he’s been showing his works primarily in St. Petersburg and St. Augustine. When asked why, he said he didn’t feel that Jacksonville-based galleries gave him a chance. This last year, however, he mounted two shows. On Dec. 2, a third show, Infrastructure opens at Jewish Community Alliance in Mandarin. These days, Keith Doles takes nothing for granted. Reflecting on his newest pieces, he said, “There’s construction, but also a feeling of uncertainty … will this work out?”