Precise and gentle works from a 'visual humanist'
''Art is concerned with who and what people are, and how they feel, and how they are working out their feelings.''
Gobin Stair, surrounded by 38 years' worth of his paintings at the Duxbury Art Complex, speaks quietly and simply. So does his work.
These 54 acrylics and oils, displayed in the woodsy elegance of a gallery established by the Weyerhaeuser family in this South Shore town, are neither bursts of bravado nor the self-conscious anguishings of a tormented soul. Unlike much of modern painting, they are the gentle, sometimes witty, and surprisingly precise representational expressions of a humanist whose medium is visual rather than literary.
Not that he is unlettered: anything but. Spending most of his career as a commercial artist, he gravitated toward publishing: as book designer for various firms, as production manager and art director at Penguin and Bantam Books in New York, and finally as director of the Beacon Press in Boston, which under his direction published the Pentagon papers in 1971.
Working in that confluence of art, words, and commerce, he kept his distance and emerged with his compassion intact. It is that compassion - that interest in a breadth of humanity revealed in titles ranging from ''Subway Riders'' to ''Philosophers'' - that makes these paintings breathe.
And breathe they do, in all sorts of ways. For they are all about people - not a still-life nor a landscape in the lot. Yet they fall into several groups. His typical style includes flat patches of color and heavy outlining of the figures - with more than a nod at the caricaturist's exaggeration of features. Many of these paintings deal in groups of individuals - committees, bums, church-goers, elevator-riders, and even a fine large piece (''Group Consciousness,'' painted specifically for this exhibition) of Jesus and the 12 disciples.
Yet for all the distortions, these works display a keen observation of character. These figures are distinct individuals - so much so that, were one of his models to walk into the gallery, you feel that he would be immediately recognized.
In another vein, Stair also works with multifaced figures - noses sticking out where ears should be, and several mouths. Piling four or five of these heads together on canvas, he produces some wonderfully satirical generic paintings - ''Bureaucrats'' and ''Role Players,''for example.
But the best work (which, to his credit, is also his most recent) comes in several pieces of large, blurred crowds: ''Grief'' (1980), ''On the Way'' (1982) , and the magnificent ''Coven'' (1981).Here the features disappear. Yet somehow the humanity persists. They do not smell of the easel, these paintings. Their composition seems less the result of artful plotting than of a genuinely visual instinct. In them, too, the color has become more vibrant, and the hand seems freer.
All in all, these are not flashy paintings. Nor are they particularly mainstream. But Stair - who traces his immediate influences to Arshile Gorky, Milton Avery, and his student days in New Hampshire when he assisted Orozco on the Dartmouth mural - is not worried about that. He sees himself as fighting free of ''the great surge of abstract expressionism'' that has characterized most of America's 20th-century painting. Abstract expressionism, he says, ''came in and took over and obscured a lot of other things that should be happening.''
By ''other things'' he does not mean seascapes or Cape Cod nostalgia. His talent is not the illustrator's, intent on counting the exact number of boards on the barn. What he illustrates, in the end, are not objects but human qualities. The result is a body of work which, although its creator describes it as dealing with fear, frustration, and loneliness, manages a kind of transcendence over these things that arrives at its own peace.
As such, these works can be experienced more than once. It is an exhibition that grows on you. And that, after all, is the hallmark of all good art, whether music or poetry or painting. Unfortunately for those who like to see things in repeat, the gallery has extremely tight hours (Friday through Sunday, 2-5 p.m.) and the exhibition ends Sept. 12.