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JASON ROHLF: Pilots
Judy A. Saslow Gallery
Rousseau's 'noble savage' was neither so noble, nor -- as archeology and ethnology document -- so savage. Humankind has always shown itself to be complex, highly social, and highly communicative, in speech and art. And yet there is a definite power which attracts what some have termed 'the over-civilized' to long-lived, indigenous cultures, to a different, fundamental and inherent way of seeing and experiencing. Since the 19th century, Western art has re-discovered and revived in part through the influence of 'native arts' from about the world. Many such as Picasso and Gauguin built large bodies of work from that inspiration; even Malevich found promptings in folk art. And many of the finest among them were essentially... 'self-taught.' "Jason Rohlf: Pilots," at the Judy A. Saslow Gallery, Chicago, until November 11, 2000 proves that the phenomenon today is still fruitful and a significant force in fine art.
Judy A. Saslow Gallery is prominent among venues for 'Outsider art,' a somewhat open and flexible genre. The gallery does place Jason Rohlf among its selection of contemporary artists, but in fact, all the terms apply; and are equally meaningless. One judges the art, and Jason Rohlf is an artist: one who presents an interesting, notable body of work.
Like Picasso and Gauguin, Rohlf draws inspiration, visual approaches and perceptions, motifs and intents, from alternative art traditions; and like many unconventional and innovative painters, long acknowledged, Rohlf has found his voice outside the art schools and their officialdom. Rohlf's paintings attract, interest and engage. "Pilots" assumes its title as the paintings themselves function as guides to the visitor, through the artist's visual explorations.
Scope (1999: Oil on panel:31"x31") is representative of a persistent motif in the "Pilot" exhibition. The artist himself has noted the "recurring theme of a mask-like head and a pair of sometimes human hands, other times insect-like arms." Several traits give these paintings a strong and assertive demeanor. Rohlf favors geometric blocks of relatively solid color in these works. In some paintings, he uses them to construct a composition of asymmetrically distributed mass among visual elements, opposing the weights of forms, balancing color fields; and rendering fixed the implied tensions among them. In Scope (1999), Rohlf centers the focal interest -- a highly stylized and nearly abstracted mask -- dead center and up to the top edge of the panel. The expansive white ground, enclosed by a heavy black frame, both push toward the central focus, lending a sense of gravity to the mask object. The prominent ring about the left 'eye' might well accord with the painting's title, and the mask motif, but the purely formal qualities here strike upon a natural and satisfying pattern, one found in sea-lilies and flowers, microscopic diatoms, butterfly scales, dolmens and natural rock crevices.
That the frame in Scope and kindred paintings contributes much to the overall effect is no happenstance. The artist devotes particular attention to the framing, sometimes constructing the frame himself, and otherwise collaborating with others. Rohlf regards the framemaking as a process just like his painting, and each is individually conceived as a collaborative element towards the final result. He seeks out antique moulding, old cabinet doors and the like towards that end. In many of the works, the frames are as of great an interest as the associated painting. And, like the paintings, they range widely in variety, and to great effect.
Rohlf's paintings make a spontaneous and strong impression, but in fact they are the result of laborious development and reworking. The artist has stated that he frequently works the piece intensely, sometimes scraping the finished surface to expose previously painted layers. The paintings in "Pilot" are the cumulative end-product of an continuous evolution. As French poet Paul Valery once said, a work of art is never really finished, it is merely abandoned.
Some of this artist's strongest works are where he diverges most from any initial reference. (And this is the point where one hopes an artist never reads his notices. Why should he?) Prospect (2000) stays in mind, and beyond its mask-like kernel, it adds a harmony of hues, tones, and forms, that are fundamental to human visual experience: a conditioned template of ocular memory. With prior coaching and clues, one does decipher the mask structure which underlies the composition, but it seems an afterthought, a philosophical postulate at best, and it pales in taking in the painting as a whole. Prospect (2000) is among a number of paintings in which Rohlf excels himself: it is bright in color, rich in nuance, instinctively and subliminally coherent and evocative. If Kandinsky and Klee sought to express the dreams of fetal bliss, or the irrationally conceived awareness of heaven and earth, Rohlf in such works approaches their fraternity. There is some really fine art in this exhibition, and a visitor to the gallery will delight in it.
Which is not to say that all of the work is consistent. I must confess that some paintings are exciting, many are a pleasure, and a few merely seem to occupy the wall. And that may be due to the baggage, the associations and aesthetic colorings, each carries into every showing. A work such as STALL (Acrylic on canvas:38"x22") presents two birds, back to back. Here, the overt figurative interest, rather than to anchor the piece, seems more to distract. In work such as Rohlf's, the formal exploration yields considerable information and structure on an elemental level: a primal expression which varies in each viewer's reception. That much was evident in the highly positive reactions of visitors to the gallery. STALL, and the few pieces akin to it, come dangerously close to the decorative and commonplace (two distinct qualities, of which the latter is threatening).
Rohlf's recent palette is predominantly in the green and yellow range, with sporadic use of bright orange, but the choice is a matter of the artist's working method at any one time, rather than deliberate choice or ulterior intent. Works such as Prospect (2000) reveal a palette extended into a broad, warm range, and in deep contrast with dark greens and black. "JASON ROHLF: Pilots" centers about several series and themes in the artist's paintings. The artist's investigations and extrapolations of the mask motif are especially rewarding. Although Rohlf has had a brief, subsequent exposure to an art class, he remains an artist who is, in all practical terms, 'self-taught' (as is, in essence, every artist). His art does offer an individual and distinct way of seeing and experiencing. In earlier work, he has drawn upon approaches common to folk and 'indigenous' motifs and traditions, and several visitors to the exhibition thought they discerned affinities with African or Oceanic patterns.
Labels are useful (although often misleading) as a prior and general orientation. But only a pedant would insist upon strict categorization. Artists themselves don't. One doubts that there exists today an 'indigenous' culture which has not been subject to outside influence. (Why restrict that to 'Western'?) Almost every culture, and artistic activity, has experienced, assimilated, even adopted outside traits and expressions; and contributed them as well. If one truly hasn't, then it is so isolated that we have not yet seen it. We value other expressions for the alternatives they offer, necessarily and rightly so. Art also allows us to see through other eyes, and if it is good, the vision offers vitality, freshness, intent; and there will be something to see, to experience anew: a content. "JASON ROHLF: Pilots" does just that. It captures attention, remains in memory, and presents irrationally familiar matters of investigation, to be resolved viscerally, visually, without windy exegesis; much like the tribal memories of instinct -- and we all share them.
"JASON ROHLF: Pilots" will be at the Judy Saslow Gallery, 300 West Superior, Chicago, until November 11, 2000. Further images are accessible at the gallery's website: http://www.jsaslowgallery.com.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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