For months I’ve had the well- intentioned plan to visit the Hill Center on Capitol Hill to check out their gallery space. The Center, opened last November in an old naval hospital dating back to 1864, is providing Southeast, DC residents with a variety of arts and social activities and boasts gallery spaces throughout its three floors. A standout in the current group exhibition is Mongolian artist Tsolmon Damba, who has a regular following at the weekend Eastern Market arts and crafts fair for his small works on paper. Devotees of his work will be happily surprised to find larger examples of his paintings in the Center’s third floor galleries. I had the chance to chat with him about his work this week as he stopped by the gallery to install some new pieces.
Damba was born and raised in a rural Mongolian village (in a yurt he tells me). He attended college in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital and first came to the United States in 1999 to participate in leather artists’ showcase in Denver. He took up residency in the US shortly thereafter in Washington DC, which apparently has an active community of Mongolian expats. His humble Eastern Market booth belies the demand for his work; he’s regularly featured at painting demonstrations at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries and participates in gallery shows internationally.
Damba has a variety of pieces in this exhibition encompassing two distinct bodies of work united in their use of traditional Mongolian themes such as ancient sport and warrior portraiture. The more traditional body of work is executed in watercolors with ink and features tableaus depicting ancient horseback gaming (in Ancient Polo) and military prowess (in Mystic Warrior). In these pieces, figures are outlined in ink and then completed with deft brushstrokes of watercolor, giving the piece an overall feeling of light airiness. Small, delicate swaths of ink placed strategically on the bottom half of the canvas bound the figures to the earth and provide a sense of scale, but also suggest a vast countryside open to the heavens. Damba identifies these as Oriental compositions which surprised me, as I assumed he’d approach his art from a specific, cultural viewpoint. Instead, he acknowledges his works share similarities with the multiple painting traditions of the region, but what separates his work is its distinctive Mongolian subject matter culled from his imagination.
Where the first body of work is defined by its adherence to historical traditions (down to the title and signature rendered in Mongolian script), his second body of work mixes these traditional motifs with elements of modern abstraction and impressionism. These acrylic and oil works feature the same traditional characters (he’s obviously drawn to the ancient warrior motif) on backgrounds boldly painted in gradients of blue. Rather than using delicate ink to outline and give features to the painting’s figures, Damba uses a kaleidoscope of colors and changing brushstrokes to delineate form and shape. For
example, in Warriors of the Blue Sky, the artist features two warriors on horseback defined by daubs of color and uses brushstroke texture variations to highlight the shape of the warriors’ helmets, breastplate and saddle. The lack of a defined background skews the sense of scale, which lends a certain mythological feeling to the piece; are the warriors galloping across the ground, or racing through the sky?
While his traditional ink and watercolor pieces are certainly beautiful, I was most drawn to these hybrids of Eastern and Western techniques. They demonstrate that Damba has the skills to successfully meld different painting traditions while maintaining a succinct vision that, while grounded in the culture of his native culture, is expansive enough to incorporate experimentation and play. Apparently I am not the only one enjoying his art; the acclaim around Damba’s work has garnered him an invitation to participate in the next group exhibition, meaning his work will continue to hang at the Hill Center until October 25th.