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Hamlett Dobbins' paintings at Belmont's Leu Gallery are some of the best Nashville's seen in 2013

In the Abstract

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The Arts Company's website describes Hamlett Dobbins as a painter's painter, and you need look no further than the shapes, colors, textures and compositions on display in a pair of shows at Belmont's Leu Art Gallery to find him confidently owning that title. Mellow Mountain Coalition is a display of collaborations with artist Tad Lauritzen-Wright, while The River Beneath Us is a sprawling solo affair. Together, they constitute one of the best exhibitions of painting Nashville's seen this year.

Dobbins is a Memphis-based painter whose work will already be familiar to Nashville gallery goers. Back in 2009, Dobbins was included in the ambitious Tennessee Abstract Painting exhibition at Cheekwood, and more recently his work appeared at The Arts Company's display of Bluff City painters, Five from Memphis.

Add Dobbins' new show at Belmont to gallery director Jessica Owings' ever-increasing list of outstanding exhibits by painters like Barry Buxkamper and Lain York. Since 2010, Owings has transformed Belmont's Leu Art Gallery from a humdrum display space in a university library into one of Nashville's go-to spots for contemporary painting.

Mellow Mountain Coalition decorates the Leu Art Gallery foyer with a mosaic of unframed painted portraits on paper. Among the faces, a hobo smokes a cigarette and a weird dog dresses up in Mickey Mouse ears and a bowtie. Enigmatic fragments of text appear: "This is for you," "Looking for an idea," and "Sour Leaf." One piece reads, "Hulk smash!" and features a gaggle of green blob-like heads in misshapen states of transformation — it's like Altered States through the lens of Ang Lee. Throughout, Dobbins' vibrant, sensual lines, circles, dots, spirals, swirls and squiggles pulsate with painterly pleasure.

But nothing in the Leu foyer prepares visitors for The River Beneath Us, which is just around the corner in the gallery proper. Where Mellow Mountain Coalition is wacky, energized and lighthearted, River is sublime and intense. None of the works is labeled — they're simply accompanied by tiny numbered pins — and the paintings become enigmatic icons in their anonymity. Still, there is humor to be found in the gallery, and one never gets the sense that Dobbins is taking himself too seriously. But, even at first glance, it's evident that The River Beneath Us is playing a higher-stakes game than the process-driven work in Mellow Mountain.

I suggest starting the show with No. 7 and No. 3. A list in the gallery corresponds to the numbers and reveals that both of these pieces are known as "Untitled (Notes on P.D./G.)." No. 7 features a biomorphic field in a curved, pink border. But the elements seem familiar: It's a trickling stream on a sandy beach as seen through the makeshift telescope of a hand that's been curved around one's eye, like a little kid playing pirate. The pink, fleshy "telescope" frames the piece in a matter that is feminine and sexual. With No. 3, Dobbins gives us practically the same painting, but the warm pinks are replaced by flat, flashing whites, and the water and sand that seemed so recognizable in No. 7 are replaced by multicolored, vaporous clouds. Here, Dobbins abandons the sensual and feminine for the intellectual and masculine: clear, cold, Apollonian.

In "Untitled (For D.A.L./T.F.)," a curving red triangle decorates a mound of white paint. This in an abstract landscape, perhaps more specifically understood to be the landscape of a woman's body — a close-up of the abdomen and genitals. Look at this painting alongside Gustave Courbet's "L' Origine du Monde" and tell me I'm seeing things.

Dobbins could have called his exhibition Seeing Things, given his ability to incorporate colors, shapes and textures that feel familiar, while never letting the elements actually coalesce into a more concrete representation. It's a deep, dynamic show — and one that requires multiple viewings.

The large canvases are the highlights of the exhibit, and among them "Untitled (For J.W. 2)" stands out in particular. The dappled background is a light-filled, cotton candy pink. There's a squiggle and a circle and a few smaller elements at the center, along with a green, blue and red stripe. A similar stripe decorates a cloudlike formation in the lower-right corner, calling to mind the red, green and blue of the light spectrum, and the shades of pink remind me of the hues painter Philip Guston used in his later, figurative work.

While Dobbins offers no actual figures here, to me, the violet circle, curves and lines at the center of the painting imply an elephant's head. Once I made this association, I was immediately reminded of the pink elephants that danced through boozy scenes of vintage cartoons. Of course, these inferred allusions were my own, and may have no real connection to Dobbins' intentions — but then again, maybe he's revealing the secret ingredients behind these paintings: illumination and ecstasy.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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