In His Art, Steven Dobbin Recycles Found Objects to Tease Out Heavy Meaning

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For an artist’s talk that had an academic, ho-hum title like “Conceptualism to Meaning,” Steven Dobbin drew a lot of laughs.

Detail of Dobbin’s “Bury Me with Christenberry” (2007)

At one point, the Frederick, Maryland, artist, whose work is the subject of a solo exhibition (through Dec. 1) at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), asked if anyone in the audience knew the score of the Redskins-Cowboys game. “I know this is unprofessional,” he said. “You don’t want to know,” someone from the crowd of about 125 attendees called back to him.

Soon Dobbin was describing one of his pieces, reciting a kind-of ode to roadkill in which he wondered why squirrels aren’t as lamented as deer are. He said he’d kept dead squirrels in his work freezer while developing the piece in question. “That didn’t go over real well.”

When a photo-transfer on wood that he made came up during his PowerPoint presentation, Dobbin said, “This piece is called ‘Do Not Set Yourself on Fire,’ which is good advice.” That, too, drew laughs.

Later, he compared his works to Andy Warhol’s art. “Although, these are better,” he said of his own work.

But as funny as Dobbin was, his work is also extremely sobering at times. Many of the 55-odd works in the exhibit are memorials to deceased loved ones—among them Dobbin’s first wife, a brother, and friends.

Detail of Dobbin’s “Reclamation Tapestry” (2017)

“Dobbin’s creativity enables him to see beauty in what many would see as junk,”  said Eric Key, director of the UMGC Arts Program, of Dobbin’s materials: lead, copper, steel, and plaster. “For example, he can paint a multitude of paint container lids—sometimes reshaping them—and arrange them in such a way that the finished work of art resembles a quilt.”

Dobbin, whose works had been in a prior UMGC juried show, recycles a variety of materials to create works which fit into several categories, said Margaret Dowell, adjunct professor of art at the College of Southern Maryland and moderator of the artist’s talk and panel discussion, who noted recurring themes in Dobbin’s art: the grid, repetition, social commentary, recycling—and work, itself.

The artist took his first welding and ceramics class after twice breaking his foot playing basketball. “All of a sudden, I had time, and I’d never done anything but sports.”

In his first class, he made 150 sculptures. “I was having dreams about throwing pots,” he said, referring to making ceramics on a pottery wheel. In the Ohio winter, his skin would crack from making pots, but he was passionate about it.

“Primary Triad” (2019)

Dobbin quit school and landed—then lost—a full scholarship to another college because he couldn’t keep up with the art classes. The scholarship was reinstated, but then he quit school to move in with his first wife. Sadly, she died in childbirth. (The artist’s son attended the artist’s talk and reception.) Dobbin had some gallery success, but business was unstable. “This was a theme for me,” he said. “Galleries that pick me up, go out of business.”

After creating emotional works about deceased family and friends, Dobbin moved to the grid to create new kinds of works. “We Are Making Enemies Faster Than We Can Kill Them” (2005), made of copper, plaster, and paint, includes depicted faces and weapons and is inspired by triptychs, three-paneled, fold-up religious works, that Dobbin saw in European churches.

“Immigrant” (2016), which includes some Yiddish inscriptions, draws upon his visit to the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Some immigrants who came through Ellis Island were labeled “mental defect suspected,” Dobbin learned at the museum. “I feel like that’s what I’d be marked.” Inscriptions in the piece include both “mental defect suspected” and “definite mental defect.”

For another piece, “An Awful noise” (2019), Dobbin said he forced himself to watch cable television and photoshopped images of the anchors and talking heads, painting the backgrounds red and yellow. Many of the portraits are recognizable. Dobbin said his favorites were Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon of the sports show Pardon the Interruption (PTI).

“Workingman Collective” (2019)

Other works, like the one about not setting oneself on fire, relate to Dobbin’s job as a special-needs teacher. Some steel sculptures show people carrying ladders and shovels and the like. And “Box Boy” (2007) is based on a child trying to dig with a shovel in one hand while using the other to hold his pants up. Dobbin and colleagues prepare youth for jobs like cleaning, gardening, and spreading mulch, and his art touches, also, on that part of his life.

One of the most arresting works in the show is a flashing neon sign, “I Repeat Myself” (2016), a theme echoed in “When I Speak to People Who Are Deaf, I Repeat Myself” (2013-19). The works relate to a now-deceased friend of Dobbin’s who kept saying, “What?” whenever Dobbin said something to him.

Repetition and serial works are common in art history, but leave it to an artist with such an unusual and playfully inventive way of looking at the world to gesture to this trope while drawing on his experiences with loved ones, both living and dead.