The modern artist ... is working and expressing an inner world—in other words—expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces….Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within. —Jackson Pollock
There is no formula, no method, just a compulsion to experiment.... The paintings tell you what they need. The interaction with painting is so primal. It’s the way we relate to the tactile world. —John DiPaolo
F. Scott Fitzgerald once joked that there are two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who do not. It’s an elegant aphorism, and, used with some restraint, accurate. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin posited two types of creatives: opportunistic, omnivorous foxes, who embrace the complexity of the world and shun grand unifying theories (Aristotle, Shakespeare); and obsessive, burrowing hedgehogs who subsume reality into comprehensive universal principles (Plato, Dante).
There are, however, visual artists who combine both open-minded experimentation and an almost monastic commitment to their art practice. In our current culture of falsity, pretension and marketing, it is heartening to discover painters like John DiPaolo who refuse to be anything but real, i.e., humanly large and full of contradictions, to summarize Walt Whitman; who go into the studio to paint, sometimes not knowing what will emerge, but trusting to impulse, imagination, experience, and the “inner feeling” or “inner necessity” extolled by Kandinsky—and cited by DiPaolo in his filmed PBS interview praising the painter-hedgehog Clyfford Still.
DiPaolo, who has painted in an Abstract Expressionist style for forty years, proves, with his powerful orchestrations of color and gesture, which art historian Peter Selz characterizes as “rhythmic dispositions of color and shape in space,” that the art world, with its reflexive love of callow novelties, and its slavery to fashion, should take a longer and deeper view. A stylistic fox, i.e., versatile and experimental, he’s also a temperamental hedgehog, committed to and obsessed with “physical, experiential engagement” (Frances Malcolm) with oil paint—with Philip Guston’s beloved ”colored mud.” (Other hybrids: Picasso, with his protean versatility, and the renegade Guston, who abandoned abstraction (“all that purity”) to take up the banner of messy, human narratives.
Born in Brooklyn in 1946, DiPaolo studied in the mid-1960s at the School of Visual Arts with Janet Fish, Eugene Karlin, and Francis Criss, and he found his artistic horizons vastly expanded in the heady, experimental New York art scene, with Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and conceptualism in spirited competition. While he made paintings under the influence of Pop artist James Rosenquist, and the Surrealist René Magritte, he discerned in Frank Stella’s revolutionary pin-stripe paintings (improbably, since they defy AbEx orthodoxy), “a larger understanding of space, form, and reality” that would influence his later abstractions. After moving to the Bay Area in 1971, Di Paolo enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied with Jack Jefferson, Carlos Villa, Julius Hatofsky, Rupert Garcia, Helene Aylon, and Sam Tchakalian, In the mid-70s, he enrolled in graduate school at San Francisco State University, studying with Robert Bechtle, Karen Breschi, Richard McLean, and the figurative sculptor Stephen De Staebler (whose work is represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery, as are the paintings of Guy Diehl, DiPaolo’s classmate at SFSU). De Staebler’s physical, AbEx-style engagement with clay might be seen as similar to DiPaolo’s visceral combat/collaboration with paint in the abstract paintings he began making in grad school.
Forty-plus years on in his “long haul” practice, DiPaolo continues to find visual meaning and excitement in his longtime Hunters Point studio. His ninth solo show (in twenty years) at Dolby Chadwick Gallery features eight large oils on canvas that demonstrate his versatility and virtuosity (although the heavily worked paintings are never about mere skill). Direct Current and Highwire (both 2017) feature criss-crossed, interwoven wide paint strokes arranged in layers. Two white bands or layers (‘registers’ in art-history terminology) enfold a yellow register, set against a black background, in the former; in the latter, set against a beige background, a multicolored layer of ‘woven’ or ‘thatched’ strokes is bent into a shallow V-shape, suggesting a corner, or a turn in space. In Light in Our Darkness and Revolver #3 (both 2018), DiPaolo eschews the horizontal layering, creating visually weighty central forms with flat brushstrokes painted in different colors and orientations. Aurora #5 and Serpentine (both 2018-19) return the horizontal structure, but less strictly; the foreground visual elements, painterly, ambiguous, imaginary objects, push against and escape confinement. Silhouette and Untitled #20 (also from the past two years) flirt with imagery and interpretation: a profile, and a kind of animated manuscript, respectively, to my mystical eye, anyway. As JoAnne Northrup, former curator at San Jose Museum of Art wrote, DiPaolo’s centrifugal/centripetal paintings, are transcribed, reified “controlled chaos, a harnessing of natural forces.”