art review

John and Joe Dumbacher exhibit minimal sculptures in 'Cut,' part of BackroomNY

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

NEW YORK -- By common consent, the Dumbacher twins, John and Joe, are two (or maybe one; they co-sign everything) of the most interesting artists in Washington. It's a consent built as much on faith as experience, since we don't get to see much of their work -- two photographs in 2008, when they were profiled in this paper, and little else since 2006, when the pioneering Fusebox gallery closed and the brothers went without a Washington dealer. The Dumbachers have a place in the District -- John does very well as head of licensing for National Geographic -- but also deluxe homes and studios in Los Angeles and New York, where they are just as likely to be found.

Now, a new body of work is in a show called "Cut" and on view in a strange place: a small space at the rear of the posh shoe store Leffot in Greenwich Village. Curator Rody Douzoglou, an ex-Washingtonian, has been running an exhibition series there called BackroomNY.

The setting feels strangely appropriate to the Dumbachers' work. Their five wall-mounted sculptures are angular and approximately shoe-box size. They are also as stylish and sleek as art can get. More important, they are made with the same extreme attention to craft that you expect from the finest of cobblers.

End of comparison. The new sculptures look nothing like shoes. The best term to describe them might be "rococo minimalism."

They are solid, massy blocks of mirror-finished aluminum, plated with a light-devouring black chrome. The blocks start rectangular, eight or 10 inches a side and weigh about 25 pounds. Then they get cut into until one face becomes a row of jagged peaks, like the graph of an economy in trouble.

As with all Dumbacher works, the story behind these sculptures matters almost as much as the finished pieces. They start life as goofy, scrappy maquettes made from cut foam and tape. Those get mailed back and forth between the two brothers, either physically or as jpegs, and each twin takes a crack at perfecting the forms. Once they've decided on a shape that interests them, it's distilled into a blueprint. That's then passed to a hired craftsman who runs a milling machine installed in the Dumbachers' Los Angeles studio. He turns the brothers' rough first thoughts into a finished work that looks too perfect to be true. The casual back and forth between two brothers becomes a singular object that seems unable to be other than it is, like something floating outside the mouth of Plato's cave.

Despite their simplicity and elegance as almost-ideal geometric solids, there's a curious threat to the pieces. "Sir, with that weight and those points, it's a weapon," said an airport screener, refusing to let the brothers bring one sculpture on the plane from Los Angeles to New York.

The color of the plating adds another ominous note. Similar, more friendly pieces once shown in the District had a cheery silver finish, and their shallow angles reflected each viewer's face as a fun-house version of itself. With the new works, although you know they ought also to reflect, their color and acute angles actually make it hard to see yourself at all. They help you play a vampiric disappearing trick.

The sculptures play almost the same trick themselves. Although their material presence is strong, they are so unearthly slick that they also look like objects that could only exist in the virtual world of a computer. (Computer animation loves objects with shiny surfaces and regular shapes, since they're so easy to render.) You expect these sculptures to vanish at the merest reboot. Or to fall on your foot and crush it.


runs through Nov. 15 at Leffot, 10 Christopher St., New York. Call 646-957-2970 or visit

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