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Portraits that Get Under Your Skin

Jorg Dubin’s portraits get under your skin in both their subject matter and their style. –By Lauren Simon | Story photos by Jody Tiongco

Gallerist Peter Blake visited his longtime friend and painter Jorg Dubin one day several years ago to have his portrait painted. It had been a bad day for Peter, but he did his best to pose for Jorg in a way that, he says, would make him look “strong and confident,” rather than worried and upset, as he really had been. About six weeks later when the portrait was completed, Peter was shocked.

“I looked at the portrait and all I could see was everything that had been going through my head that morning—that kind of fear, that ‘oh my god, what am I going to do… ,” he recalls. “This portrait said everything about my mental state that day. Regardless of how hard I had tried to hide it, Jorg picked up on it and he exposed it.”

Honesty—the basis of Jorg’s signature painting style—often provokes a certain level of discomfort among viewers. Even fans that know and appreciate his work sometimes commission him to paint their portraits, and then don’t even want the paintings after they see them.

“He paints you for all your ugly and all your beautiful and whatever there is, but he’s not masking anything,” says Peter, who is Jorg’s agent of 18 years. Jorg’s portraits “show a side of [the subject] that they know is there, but they don’t want the world to see.”

On the Surface
A self-taught painter, sculptor, furniture-maker, musician and longtime Laguna Beach resident, Jorg has always been controversial, some might even say surly. His resume is impressive and includes exhibitions throughout California, as well as New York, Seattle and the National Portrait Gallery in our nation’s capital. His landscape paintings and sculptures are currently featured in the inaugural show at the Orange County Great Park Gallery in Irvine, and he has more than a handful of public art pieces on display in and around Laguna Beach.

You also might not suspect that Jorg has so much fire in his belly if you meet him casually on the street. The Laguna Beach Arts Commission recently unanimously voted to award him a commission for a commemorative sculpture to be installed in Heisler Park to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Dressed in a crisp button-down shirt and tailored trousers, with closely cropped red hair and pale skin, the 55-year-old artist looks every bit the professional as he explains his design: two original 6-foot I-beams from the fallen World Trade Center mounted on posts and set askew above a 30-inch mirror-polished stainless steel sphere.

“I really wanted to present these two artifacts in a way that highlights the horror of the event but does not place them on a pedestal as precious objects,” Jorg says. Moreover, his design invites viewers to “touch [the beams] and interact with them,” he adds. The mirrored sphere, which reflects objects near the sculpture, helps viewers understand how their personal stories and remembrances of that infamous day are now part of the nation’s communal history. This design, this presentation, this thoughtfulness obviously comes from a man who is deeply and emotionally connected to how people interact with the world and his work.

On the other hand, there is something unnerving—even disturbing—about many of Jorg’s figurative paintings. His most recent show at Peter Blake Gallery, for example, featured a collection of paintings of mixed martial arts fighters posed alongside scantily clad women who appeared much smaller than the men and were posed in submissive positions. One of the paintings, called “Submit: Humility,” reversed the genders, showing a woman in the dominant position standing above a naked and bloodied man lying on the floor.

The style and content matter was not unusual for Jorg, who often paints men clothed in distinctive dress (priest, hoodlum, luchadore, custodian, clown) standing in strong, aggressive poses. Women in his paintings often appear nude or in partial undress. Sometimes the subjects (men and women) seem powerful, sometimes beautiful, sometimes thoughtful, but they are almost always sexually charged, such as in “Welcome,” in which two women smile while standing in a pool of blood wearing only their underwear and carrying semi-automatic weapons.

When asked about his controversial subject matter, Jorg is unapologetic. “I really want to feel strongly about each subject I paint,” he explains. “If I see a person that I think is interesting or does something interesting or just looks interesting, I just want to make a painting of them.”

Peter’s explanation is that Jorg is a “no-shit kind of guy. I’ve never known Jorg to pander to the market in any way. He could care less what I want, what you want, what someone wants to buy. He paints exactly what he wants.”

Multimedia Artistry
Jorg has very little formal arts training, but he has been making things since he was a child, first in his father’s workshop and then, in his teens, in ceramics class at Corona del Mar High School. He was 15 years old when he and his friends started a ceramics business; and when he was in his 20s, he and a partner opened a design company in which they custom-made furniture and painted faux finishes for high-end residential projects.

In 1976, Jorg moved to Laguna Beach and opened his own ceramics studio in the same canyon location where he still works today. Around that same time, he took a watercolor class with Laguna painter Scott Moore, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that he began to paint seriously, a move he credits to Stephen W. Douglas, the Los Angeles-area painter who then was teaching at Laguna College of Art and Design.

“Really, it was under Stephen that I furthered my understanding of how to use oil paint,” Jorg says. “It was really my introduction to Stephen Douglas and auditing his class for a year and a half that gave me the tools to understand how to paint, understand how to see and understand how not to be afraid of painting.”

Today, Jorg paints mostly from photographs, or as in the case of Peter Blake and others, he has friends pose for him. He earns his living from his artistry, whether it is commissioned work, fine art sales, or occasional work on sets and props for the movie industry. When he is not occupied with commissioned work, such as the 9/11 sculpture, he paints nearly every afternoon and evening, completing 10 to 15 paintings and several pieces of furniture and sculpture every year.

Under the Surface
Although Jorg specializes in figurative painting, his artwork does not fail to comment, however subtly, on current events and popular culture. In addition to his series on mixed martial arts, he recently painted a series based on the popular computer game “World of Warcraft.” He also admits to a fascination with strip clubs and recently took hundreds of photographs of local women taking pole dancing lessons that he plans to turn into a series of portraits.

“You sort of see an interesting thing about the people who work [in strip clubs] and the people who go to those places, how, in reality, although most people won’t admit it, most people have probably gone to one,” Jorg says. “There’s a strange athletic ability to it, but there’s also a sensuality to it, and then there’s a campy quality to it as well.” The migration of pole dancing from strip clubs to strip malls is not likely to be lost in his paintings either, Peter notes.

Jorg is not, as some might think, driven by the shock value of his artistic choices, but rather, by a deep desire to show his subjects’ humanity—whether they are his friends, strangers, athletes, musicians or dancers. “I’m trying to express something that’s very down at a core level of human existence through the paintings,” he says. “I want to get past the surface, to get down inside of who these people are. That’s a connection that all my paintings have—they evoke an emotion or a real humanist quality. I’m not trying to disguise flaws in people. I’m not trying to paint airbrushed Playboy centerfold-type paintings.”

One way that Jorg accomplishes this goal is to pose his subjects so that they are frequently looking directly at the viewer. His painting style, which he calls “raw or unfinished,” also allows the viewer wide latitude for personal interpretation. In other words, whereas some parts of his portraits are fairly realistic, other parts are suggestive, even so far as to include the obvious hand of the artist. This signature style, he says, “contributes to getting past that surface level of the subject and getting under the surface of these paintings figuratively and literally. I want to show the process in my paintings. I want to show struggle in the paintings. And I want to show that a human is being touched by these things—that they aren’t mechanical looking, that there is a freshness, a real human quality to them.” LBM

Jorg Dubin on Exhibit:

Check out Jorg’s work at the following locations:
“Plane Air Power” at the Orange County Great Park Gallery—landscapes and sculpture, through Oct. 16. Retrospective show at Orange Coast College, tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2012. Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach. Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica. You can hear his musical talents as part of a jazz trio every other. Saturday night at Zinc Café. You can also view his works online at jorgdubin.com.

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