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Review: Dubinsky's 'There and Gone' offers glimpses of Syria before and during civil war

Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery Yvette Drury Dubinsky. "Fig for Lunch". 2013. Mixed media on Japanese paper. 22 x 34-1/2 inches (diptych)
Provided by the artist and Bruno David gallery
vette Drury Dubinsky. "Fig for Lunch". 2013. Mixed media on Japanese paper. 22 x 34-1/2 inches (diptych)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 22, 2013: I was in the middle of writing about Yvette Drury Dubinsky’s extraordinary exhibition at the Bruno David Gallery when the gargantuan tornado of May 20 swept through Moore, Okla., reducing the town to splinters and changing forever the lives of all who lived in that place, and for anyone with a filament of empathy, changing them as well.

Destruction on this scale diminishes all of us, whether it is a natural disaster or one of the seemingly ubiquitous person-made ones. And so, as the black winds blew their tragedy over the plains, I stopped to think not only about Moore, Okla., but also Dubinsky’s work, and I realized her observations in various artistic media have absolute relevance specifically and universally. Violence is violence no matter what spawns it. Destruction is destruction.

As I think back over the years about Dubinsky’s work, it seems to be ambitiously universal, and to me it weaves back and forth between the very personal and the global. The current show, which presents investigations into those conditions once again, is comprised of photographs, prints and a large installation piece.

Altogether it is called "There and Gone." It is specifically about Syria before and during the continuing civil war. But art, if it is to matter, needs to expand beyond the superficial and quotidian and to direct us to more complete and more complex understandings of various human situations — personal and emotional ones and public and political ones as well. One of these conditions that exists, and affects us in ways large and small, is the ephemeral or the fleeting, a state that can be beneficial or punishing, a condition often called for simplicity’s sake, change.

Yvette Drury Dubinsky. "Aleppo to Damascus" (detail view). 2012-13. Mixed media installation. H 10 x W 22 x D 6 feet (size variable).
Credit Provided by the artist and Bruno David Gallery
Yvette Drury Dubinsky. "Aleppo to Damascus" (detail view). 2012-13. Mixed media installation. H 10 x W 22 x D 6 feet (size variable).

Change, of course, can be good or bad.  For example, if one’s number wins some huge sweepstakes, that is experienced, in the moment at least, as positive and a reason for rambunctious celebration. But Dubinsky is concerned principally with the ephemeral’s negative, destructive manifestations, and she deploys her talents as artist to bring them home to us ways that are both sharply direct and upsetting and veiled in the rich subtlety of abstraction.

Here is how the show came to be.

In autumn 2009, Yvette Dubinsky and her husband, the businessman and civic leader John Dubinsky, went to Byblos, Lebanon, north of Beirut, to attend the wedding of a young Frenchman who’d spent summers with the Dubinskys. He married a Lebanese-born woman who is an archeologist. After the wedding, the Dubinskys took off for a side trip to Syria.

The first works of art you encounter when you walk in are photographs from this trip and, indeed, these are places the artist encountered in the fall of 2009. 

They fade in and out, in a slide show presented on a television monitor mounted on a wall. The images are seductive and lovely. Dubinsky has a marvelous eye and is a photographer of genuine accomplishment. The pictures shown here are images of a brand of serenity that affects the soul and makes it glad. The photographs are lush, tropical, Mediterranean, caressing, magnificent, stone buildings that would appear to be strong enough to survive forever, and wandering through busy souks, brimming with riotous colors of clothing and housewares and food, and bringing to the exhibition’s table sumptuous offerings of food photographed so sensitively you almost can taste it. It is civilization, apparently, at its most robust. It is the mighty and apparently permanent "There."

But without much transition we come face to face with the major part of the exhibition, the part that concerns the "Gone."

Mounted on a wall near the photographs is a letter to the Dubinskys from Elaine Imady, a friend who manages to live in Damascus with her 82-year-old husband. He continues to his work at the stock exchange. Imady writes that "the quality of life here is constantly deteriorating and … there doesn’t seem to be any hope for the future. We are basically imprisoned inside part of the city."

And yet, her spirit has a buoyant quality, maintaining an appreciation of what is left of her world.

"The trees," she writes, "have never looked more beautiful." She explains that the regular sand storms have not materialized, leaving the foliage "brilliant in different shades of green from the new yellow-green leaves to the darker mature leaves in emerald, chartreuse and olive green."

In the years between the Dubinskys’ 2009 visit and the moment Elaine Imady sat down to write her letter, much of the beauty represented in Yvette Dubinsky’s photographs has been reduced to rubble. Graphics she has made between then and now, and also the Guernica-inspired wall sculpture/collage, respond either directly (as in the collage) or abstractly in the prints to the destruction of Syria, and by extension much of the Middle East.

Her approach is both direct and symbolic. In an email to me, Dubinsky wrote, "There are images of pistachio nuts (red from Aleppo), pomegranates, figs, and dates as part of the installation and as a part of the prints that refer to the Middle East, especially Syria.  We ate them there and they were part of what we experienced there."

She said that only two of the prints do not refer to Syria and the Middle East. In the summer, the Dubinskys go to Cape Cod.  "These [two prints] were made in Truro, Mass., and have images of blueberries from our garden in Truro in them.  We have lots of wind where we live, near the ocean, and there are many blueberry bushes. … I used the dates, figs, pomegranates and pistachio nuts free flung to speak to the chaos now going on in the country where they are from, like the cut up maps and streets." The blueberries remind one of a more peaceful life in this country.

"I worried that the prints that had blue areas in them were too playful to really represent a war-torn place. I kept the installation and some of the prints dark and more brown and monochromatic. The blue ones, I thought, might refer to my relatively calm, peaceful existence in a less problematic place, even a pleasant one."

The prints are abstract, and abstraction in the visual arts has always provided an opportunity for artists to examine complex subjects with freedom and visual virtuosity.

In civil war-era Syria, and in post-tornado Moore, Okla., we are confronted with ephemerality’s violence and its destructive qualities. With art to direct our attentions, we see how easy it is to become complacent and to assume that what we take for granted as permanent is permanent, rather than subject to radical and destructive change, as in a civil war, or as in an instant in a horrible storm. 

In this show, so aptly named "There and Gone," we dwell in the middle of an upending of wisdom we have come to trust, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s epigram, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose — the more things change the more they are the same.

We feel and we see, through the intensity of works of art such as these, a possibility of reinterpreting that wisdom, and to say that the more things change today, the less they are the same, and in the aftermath of radical and crippling change, things are never, ever as they were, nor will they ever be the same again.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.