Jordan Casteel’s oil-on-canvas portrait of an unknown man whom the artist is still trying to find, so that she can properly title the work (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the first things I noticed at Dumbo Open Studios this past weekend was the range of smells. Oil paint has a particular tang that I’ve become accustomed to, but in each studio I encountered a different aroma — a combination of materials used to make the work. There were atypical scents along with some that were quite familiar. They gave each workspace the feeling of being unique.

A Davide Cantoni painting of an image from the New York Times, made with interference paint

In Davide Cantoni’s studio, I talked to the painter about his use of interference paint, which, rather than reflecting particular wavelengths of light and absorbing all the others, as normal pigment does, contains flakes of mica that either reflect the labeled color or let light waves pass through to another layer, where they bounce out at a different refractive index. On first look, his large paintings appeared as vaguely grayish globs of color, with reddish and purplish highlights. It wasn’t until I spent some time in his studio, waiting to talk to him as he explained to other visitors how a spotlight and a certain distance from the works could affect how they were seen, that they resolved in my vision as pointillist portraits. Cantoni told me that he uses the interference paint in red, green, and blue in order to mimic the technology of the television screen. At the same time, he only uses images from the New York Times, representing a much older system. The combination is melancholy and surprising.

A painting in progress by Matt Bollinger that’s made with flashe vinyl paint on canvas and will later become part of an animated video

I stopped into Matt Bollinger’s studio and chatted with the artist about his paintings that look like quotidian domestic scenes — for instance, a naturally lit living room — but in which he takes liberties with the fall of light; in one image, he’s created a whitish wash that bends through a nearby window and extends toward a lamp, collapsing the times of both noon and dusk in the frame. Bollinger and I fell into a discussion of Matisse and the use of light and shadow to create expressionistic areas that can turn a relatively straightforward painting into a field of playful colors and geometric shapes. At a glance, Bollinger’s shadows merely seem like dark shapes, but on closer look, they disclose a bevy of hues. I see revelry with paint, some close mixing and subtle changes in temperature. His technique makes the homes he depicts seem slightly off-kilter, not quite real.

Clifford Owens’s photographs in progress for his series in which people self-identify based on prompts

I felt lucky to come upon the studio of Jordan Casteel, whose painting of a young black man wearing a hoodie and holding his phone on a stoop is so full of color and life, I wanted to start a conversation with the character. Casteel’s use of color, even without specialized materials — she uses simple oil paint — is arresting. This encounter was followed by another highlight of the afternoon: running into Clifford Owens, who told me about a new photo series he’s pursuing in Manchester, England. All the subjects who appear are included only if they respond positively to various prompts, which include: Have you done heroin? Are you lovers? Are you Muslim? Are you anorexic or bulimic? Are you a Tory?

On the whole, I enjoyed finding that innovative materials could yield fascinating work, and I was encouraged that the usual suspects — pastel, charcoal, and oil — still have the ability to make art that deserves a prolonged look.

Happy figures made of hand-crocheted yarn in Caroline Wells Chandler’s studio

A comic drawing by Dana Lok made with pastel and charcoal on paper

Two more paintings by Davide Cantoni

Nat Meade’s paintings are all oil on canvas, linen, or burlap, because, as he says, he likes them to have texture.

Another group of paintings by Nat Meade that made me think of the new television series American Gods

Pierre Seinturier’s paintings are mostly moody scenes with figures that seem allegorical.

Kara Rooney’a “Reverb No. 1” (2017), a gorgeous print that she calls a digital collage

More of Clifford Owens’s portrait photographs

Dumbo Open Studios took place in studios and workspaces across Dumbo, Brooklyn, from May 13 to May 14.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...