Dominic Chambers believes in self-care. The fast-rising figurative painter has gained recognition for expansive canvases in which the mundane and magical converge. In an early work, a woman sits on a couch absorbed in a book; the couch floats along an abstracted blue backdrop reminiscent of a rushing river. Themes of leisure and Black intellectualism run through his paintings.
“It’s important to present Black people in states other than distress and resistance,” Chambers said.
After graduating from Yale’s MFA program in 2019, Chambers has navigated a busy two years. He had his first solo institutional exhibition at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in 2020, followed by a solo presentation this past September at the Luce Gallery in Turin, Italy. This year he was also a feature on Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list as one of the most exciting emerging artists of his generation.
Now, Chambers has new representation via Lehmann Maupin, a global enterprise with galleries in New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Chambers joins other recent additions to the gallery’s roster—Chantal Joffe, Tom Friedman, Arcmanoro Niles, and Calida Rawles—and, at 28, the St. Louis native is the youngest artist in the gallery’s program.
“In rich surfaces worked over time, Dominic creates imaginary spaces for his figures that allow us to reimagine the subjects, and in turn, grant them particular autonomy,” David Maupin, cofounder of Lehmann Maupin, said in a statement. “His interest in color theory binds him to the canon as he seeks to push the boundaries of his medium and expand the scope of his own practice.”
Chambers first presented work with the gallery at Frieze New York earlier this year, and his most recent series of large-scale canvases, titled “Shadow Paintings,” will debut next month at Art Basel Miami Beach. His first solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin is slated for spring 2022.
The “Shadow Paintings” mark a break from his prior work, which has tended toward exuberantly colored portraits of the artist’s peers. In the new self-portraits, Chamber’s face is angled away from the viewer, peering toward a sort of void. A specter hangs by his shoulder; Chambers raises a hand behind him to greet it.
In psychology, the “shadow self” is the part of the personality suppressed by the conscious self, often for being difficult. Chambers had ample time to contemplate his “shadow self” while confined during lockdown in his longtime home in New Haven, Connecticut, with only his dog and self-reflection as company.
“During solitude like that, you’re going to find out if you like who’s looking back at you in the mirror,” he said. “For a long time I thought of painting as an intellectual activity, but it’s become part of my healing.”
Chambers is a voracious reader, and literary and art historical references are central to his practice. His series “After Albers” is in dialogue with Josef Albers’s seminal book Interactions of Color. Chambers painted his subjects within bold color fields, applying one of Albers’s leading ideas—that perception of color is relative to its circumstances—to the Black American experience. “If I go to the American South, I’m treated in a certain way,” Chambers said. “If I traveled to Africa, I’m an American, again on the outs.”
Johannes Vermeer is another influence on Chambers’ shadow portraits. Vermeer was known for his sensitivity to the interior lives of his subjects and refused to deliver them wholly to the viewer, instead hinting at their desires through innocuous details—a painting on a wall, a tightly grasped letter, a window thrown open to the sun.
In each portrait, Chambers’ fingernails are painted a pale shade of blue known as “haint blue,” which was used by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the American South to ward off malevolent spirits. The blue color was intended to mimic the appearance of the sky or sea, neither of which ghosts could cross.
Another influence is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the semi-autobiographical novel by Vietnamese American writer Ocean Vuong. In a scene straight from a Vermeer, Chambers read the book in silence beside his open window. Vuong’s story remained on his mind as he painted and, though their biographies are different, he felt he shared a desire with the author to paint himself into existence.
“At that time, I was preoccupied with memory, reflection, and reconciliation,” Chambers said. “This series will go on for however long it takes me to navigate these issues. It may be a long, long time.”