Dominic Chambers’ artwork goes inside. Like in, in. Into the place one doesn’t want to go. Into low-pitched truths. Into that space between one’s lungs, just below the larynx. Into that brief, silent moment in a conversation. Into the soil that hugs around the roots of a tree. Into a void one cannot name.
If, in today’s breakneck art market, an artist at the very beginning of an already verdant career can said to be known, Chambers is known for his polychromatic, abstracted, and figurative explorations of color and depth that deal with themes of black intellectualism, literature, leisure, contemplation, and rest, and are set onto Surrealist, Dadaist, and Magical-Realist backgrounds. His characters, which are often his friends and fellow artists from his alma mater, the Yale School of Art, revel in the stillness of a single moment. His series, Primary Magic (2019–present), for example, is drenched in quotidian luxuries—a space of meditation, the relief one gets from a voluminous exhale, the turning of a page of a book, or the closing of one’s eyes for a nap.
Set outside in the limitless expanse of an intensely fictional nature and night, Kevin at Midnight (2020) and Blue Park Lovers (2020) are deep-dives into the art of monochromaticity. The dominant color is not blue in the singular but blues, plural: navy, cerulean, cobalt, admiral, berry, ultramarine, ocean, azure, indigo. His After Albers (2020–present) series, which he started the moment the global pandemic hit in 2020, are large two-tone square paintings that experiment with modernist color-field à la Josef Albers (obviously) but also Mark Rothko and Morris Louis. Colors can and do change, Chambers continues to insist.
In 2019, the 28-year-old artist and self-described “studio rat,” received an M.F.A. from Yale University in New Haven, where he still lives and works. Born and raised in St. Louis, his first institutional solo show in the United States after his graduation, Like the Shape of Clouds on Water, was on view in 2020 at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh.
The exhibition’s title, Like the Shape of Clouds on Water, was named after a short story Chambers was writing. Literature is still an important touchstone. Halfway through our Zoom conversation, he mentions a T: The New York Times Style Magazine essay about memoir that almost acts as a hinge between the old and the new work, though such a distinction is always fluid. T Magazine also included a new Chambers painting, called Progress of the Soul (Reader) (2021). “The painting is a meditation on stillness and the opportunity to reconsider and revise our relationship with ourselves through engagement with literary texts,” he told T Magazine of his commission. “Progress of the Soul (Reader)” shows a seated man reading a bright orange book. His eyes are averted down, and he grips the front and back covers. He is concentrating, in full glorious thought. He seems in a world of his own but, behind him, emerging from a flocculent background of navies, is a gold shadow. The figure—who is more of a half-figure, an iridescent torso—is also not quite a shadow. It is not a direct reproduction of the body. Instead, the figure is almost crawling away, not reflecting the anterior human shape. Something similar happens in the introspective Chi Chi in Red (2020), where both figures—Chi Chi and their apparition—look in a repose but also ready to sprint, on a starting line.
Later, I look up the essay myself, which was published in September of last year. Written by Megan O’Grady and called “These Literary Memoirs Take a Different Tack,” the author argues that a new host of literary memoirs—by authors as diverse as Maggie Nelson, Michelle Zauner, Carmen Maria Machado, Kiese Laymon, Margo Jefferson, and Sarah Broom—push back not only on the form itself but also on societal structures, pressures, and expectations. It seems Chambers is also in the midst of reconsidering, revising, and maybe even rewriting not only his relationship to himself but also his relationship to his artistic practice.
To continue reading, purchase the exhibition catalog here ($25)
Soft Shadows is on view at Lehmann Maupin’s New York space through Saturday, March 5, 2022.
Pictured: Dominic Chambers, To encounter a shadow, 2022. Oil on linen, 80 x 70 inches (203.2 x 177.8 cm)