East City Reviews: Some Origin Stories

By Guest Author on November 1, 2016
Spencer Dormitzer Just Talk to Me (detail). Image courtesy of the artist.
Spencer Dormitzer Just Talk to Me (detail). Image courtesy of the artist.



Some Origin Stories is a precisely nebulous 20-year retrospective of Spencer Dormitzer’s work that thrusts the viewer between sharp questions, soft lines and open windows. The medium is artworks hand drawn with multicolored archival ink, used to compose dots, dashes, flecks, feathers, lines and voids that embed a coded story of Dormitzer’s work from the late 1990s to the present, moving through geographic place and emotional space to form a nonlinear and unsettled autobiography.

“I consider myself a broken storyteller, using abstract and inanimate forms to ambiguously unite with a title,” writes the Capitol Hill artist in the Gallery O on H exhibit notes. “This connection results to form an abstruse conversation between artist, the artwork and the audience.”

The defiantly complex drawings are shy yet inviting. Their narratives begin with a deceptive fuzziness, luring the viewer with symbolic comfort to a place of halting imprecision. Confusion supplants comfort. Messages beg anxious questions. Handwritten words below the abstract shapes are sometimes the same verbiage as the work’s formal title, other times unrelated streams of consciousness.

Spencer Dormitzer Sometime Over Every Time. www.galleryoonh.com
Spencer Dormitzer Sometime Over Every Time. www.galleryoonh.com


To Dormitzer, punctuation is an essential symbol, evidenced by his This Ellipsis… That Ellipsis… These Ellipses… Those Ellipses… exhibit at Hill Center Galleries earlier this year. The ellipsis dilutes clarity and conjoins fragments. According to Wikipedia, it derives from the ancient Greek for “omission” or “falling short.” Merriam-Webster alternatively defines the ellipsis as “a sudden leap from one topic to another.” The three dots of the ellipsis signify the letter S in Morse code, the first letter of Dormitzer’s first name and the first and last letters of the exhibit title. In many pieces, approximations of squares and rectangles are linked by a narrow bridge functioning as a visual ellipsis.

Spencer Dormitzer This... Not That. Image courtesy of the artist.
Spencer Dormitzer This… Not That. Image courtesy of the artist.

The grammatical ellipsis manifests in Dormitzer’s When Things Are … yes, a pair of projectiles launching northwesterly around 10 or 11 o’clock.  This … Not That bears an alternate secondary message, inserting a definitive verb onto the artwork itself to posit, “This … is not that,” beneath a drawing that resembles a maze with no way out. Such use of subtext supplies a “more blatant narrative to confuse or help a person looking at the drawing,” according to Dormitzer.

The ellipsis gives license not only to leap between topics but moods. Pensive, risible and inconclusive sentiments fuse into the same artwork or neighbor one another in the exhibit sequencing. This is the essence of Certain SentAnces, whose 1997 vintage makes it the earliest work in the exhibit. Its 15 random questions, pop culture allusions and comic book sensibilities reflect and refract Dormitzer’s evolution, forming the artist’s own origin story.

Dormitzer deploys the term “goofy” as shorthand for all manner of absurdities. It’s implicit in Face It, You Look Like a Rhino, which admonishes the viewer, “OK, you did it … You hurt my feelings” in a cartoonish thought bubble writ large. It’s explicit in Maybe There was Some Thinking About Goofy Far Away Places… and the premise of the four-piece Fart Jokes series, emanating from the time when Dormitzer and his son wondered how a fart would draw its self portrait. The works embody awkward mortality, the shocking moment when the rational mind is powerless over animalistic bodily function.

Spencer Dormitzer Vulnerable Grover Conversation (Detail). Image courtesy of the artist.
Spencer Dormitzer Vulnerable Grover Conversation (Detail). Image courtesy of the artist.

The theme of fallibility surfaces in The Vulnerable Grover Conversation, a 2016 work in black and blue evocative of the endearingly flawed Sesame Street character, a recycling of childhood through a parental framework. Here as elsewhere, the figurative ellipsis-bridge masks the work’s message and compels subjective interpretation.

  • Some Origin Stories is on view at Gallery OonH through Friday, November 11 (Show has been extended).
  • Gallery OonH is located at 1354 H St. NE, Washington, DC.
  • Gallery hours are Tue.-Fri. from 3:30-6:30 p.m.
  • Extended hours on Fri. Nov. 11 to 9 p.m.
  • Visit the gallery online at www.galleryoonh.com

Andrea Adleman is an H Street NE resident, poet, journalist and food critic. She writes about urban lifestyle, transportation and socio-cultural topics.