Art News

Review: Michael J. Dowling Erases and Marks Old Master Classical Imagery

Installation view of Michael J. Dowling’s solo now at Leon Gallery.
Installation view of Michael J. Dowling’s solo now at Leon Gallery. Amanda Tipton
Colorado artist Michael J. Dowling, the subject of a striking solo, You Already Know How This Will End, at Leon Gallery, has built a solid reputation based on drawings, paintings and now sculptures that have an old-master classicism that he intentionally undermines through additions and subtractions, what he calls “redactions.”

Dowling begins with traditional imagery, mostly portraits, but also birds, animals and even a ship. He erases some parts of his images, covers others, creating striking compositions that separate his work conceptually from traditional realism.

Often his figures and representations reference Italian art history, which he studied over a decade ago in Florence at the Scuola Lorenzo de Medici, with the duo Rosenclaire, the artists Rose Shakinovski and Claire Gavronsky, who continue to mentor Dowling. His drafting skills look to be something he comes by naturally, and those Italianate cultivations only enhance his accomplished technique.

In the painting “I’m Only Sure That I Know Nothing,” Dowling has rendered two European men, from some past century, looking out at the viewer. The one on the left is a convincing copy of the work of an Old Master, and the one on the right probably was, too — at least to begin with. But Dowling has obliterated it with broad, careless strokes of bright-blue paint. It’s really something.

Although there are other noteworthy paintings in the exhibit, like “Battle Cry,” a white dove on a black field, Dowling’s drawings play an outsized role. One, “The Gladiator (I Love You, I Love You Not)” depicts, in a lurid red chalk, a partly nude young woman wearing boxing gloves; he displays the actual gloves and punching bag elsewhere in the show. A group of six drawings lines the northeast corner of the gallery’s main space. Like the paintings, the drawings are covered with markouts.

Surely the real revelation of this show is Dowling’s newfound interest in clay sculptures — and considering how well done they are, sculpting is apparently his newly minted skill set and expertise. As he does with his paintings and drawings, he ties his sculptures to classical European art, but here he adds a contemporary twist by mounting portrait busts on scorched railroad ties. Most are arranged in a semi-circle and face a suspended scorched railroad tie that gently moves, marking up a piece of paper on the floor. The resulting drawings are collected at the end of each day, and a fresh sheet is placed below the tie the following day.

Given Dowling’s interest in mashing up realist renderings with abstraction, You Already Know How This Will End inevitably brings to mind Doug Kacena’s well-received Crossover exhibit at Mike Wright Gallery last month, in which he turned realist paintings by others into abstract ones, while a set of invited realist artists turned his abstract works into representational pieces. In a sense, Dowling is doing the same thing — just all by himself.

Dowling’s solo is on view through March 4 at Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue. Call 303-832-1599 or go to for hours and more information.
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia