Art Review Archives:
ARTS VISION: THE 8TH SHOW
April 13th - June 9, 2000
Time & Life Building
"The 8th Show" of Arts Vision, now on display at the Time & Life Building, 541 North Fairbanks Court, Chicago, will be there until June 9th, AD 2000. It offers a sampler of eight artists, and there are several in particular who make a visit rewarding.
"Ours is a visual age," declared art historian Ernst H. Gombrich, adding: "No wonder it has been asserted that we are entering a historical epoch in which the image will take over from the written word." ("The Visual Image," Scientific American: Vol. 272 ). However, philosopher George Steiner in Real Presences (University of Chicago: 1989) noted much cultural clutter which is "skimmed rather than read, heard but not listened to," concluding: "...the effect is antithetical to that visceral, personal encounter and appropriation designated by Ben Jonson. There is little 'ingestion'; it is the digest that prevails." Gombrich, addressing a more immediate context, in "The Force of Habit" (The Sense of Order: Phaidon: 1979) had already noted that, in our age, much of the visual is 'scanned,' rather than actually examined. With image ubiquitous, how can an artist draw in another's eye -- incite enlivened participation, rather than a facile complacency? And how can content be not surface deep, but an ever deepening fulfillment -- insight in an age of oversight? The art of Larry Roberts at Art Vision's "The 8th Show" reveals a direction; as well as a body of excellent art.
The same Ernst Gombrich once quoted Leonardo Da Vinci: "I have even seen shapes in clouds and on patchy walls which have roused me to beautiful inventions of various things, and even though such shapes totally lack finish in any single part they were not yet devoid of perfection in their gestures or other movements." Art historian Gombrich further noted Da Vinci's caveat: "For confused things rouse the mind to new inventions; but see to it that you first know all the parts of the things you want to represent...." ("Leonardo's Method For Working Out Compositions" in The Essential Gombrich: Phaidon: 1996) Larry Roberts's art presents -- or so it at first seems -- that spiritual 'dark glass' -- Da Vinci's "shapes" and "confused things," only to allow the viewer to backtrack the artist's creative exploration and freshly discover "the things you want to represent." It is an art which does not yield itself to quick scan, but very much rewards the serious connoisseur. It arrests. It holds.
Much of Roberts's working methods and technique shed light on the artist's intents and achievements. His panels are painted in acrylic on wood, often lumber board. An intervening paper sheet or layer is added, and further priming insures an archival stability. Within the image layer the underlying textures, interpolated paint layers, and fluid surface working collaborate to diffuse direct image: the artist approaches an analytical, Orphic abstractionism, in conception and in final expression. But... that sentence is a piling of words. And of such Steiner noted: "The tree dies under the hungry weight of the vines." It is the art that is the enlivened experience.
The Rider (30"x51 1/2") is perhaps the best introduction to Roberts's art. The image lies on a thin, inner panel which is then mounted onto a larger, lumber board panel circumferenced by wood frame and symmetrically corner cut at top left and right; a small central niche is fashioned at top center. The general format evokes the liturgical icon of Eastern Christianity; the thematic content however harkens to a Dostoevskian spirituality of the commonplace. As with many of Roberts's paintings, a pronounced, lightly sculptured fundamental texture selectively traps the subsequent layers of paint, which, often worked in wet technique, condenses selectively in the interstices. Image accrues, flows, settles -- the artist knows, and orchestrates "all the parts of the things you want to represent," all the while tempting and exploiting free serendipity: wet "shapes," "confused things."
The Rider presents "a glass, darkly"; captures the eye, and then resolves into figures seated, perhaps in a late winter eve's ride on public coach. It calls forth intent scrutiny. Some at the opening discerned an old, rabbinical elder, a child as his companion, no particularized locale. Other viewers varied in conclusion, but all saw the forms; each felt an unveiling of moment, an inarticulate revelation. The central panel of The Rider sports another niche, at bottom center, in which rests a symbol, but whether semaphoric man-totem or scarab-like seeing eye is open for speculation. (The artist has noted that, where an association has formed in his mind, he frequently embeds found metal items in his panels.) The actual composition recalls the work of Georges Rouault: contours a bit softer, globular; curves more mannered; palette perhaps smokier, but with a sense for primacy of mass, and subordination of detail: essentials are analyzed, given almost to a deceptive abstraction; reality appears after close viewing.
Better Dreams in Acid Rain, an acrylic on wood (52"x48"), obeys a similar direction: a black lumber panel supports a central image board, at the bottom of which is a thin, triangular horizontal of particle board. Two loosely rendered, impressionistic human forms occupy a field at lower left, while an arch of blue, green and black masses spans from top to canvas right. Whether dissolving jungle, storm, or pure and cavernous acid canopies, these masses seem both menace and phantasmagoria.
Yet Roberts's art is no Rorschach text. It begins in content. The viewer is drawn to retrace the artist's creative exploration, to discover content; solicitation; and response. Roberts's art calls to traits in the work of Russian artist, Pavel Tchelitchew; particularly to such as the latter's Hide and Seek (1941). (In Pavel Tchelitchew, Foundation For Modern Art: 1964). And what critic, H.H. Arnason, said of Tchelitchew applies to Roberts: they both turn "familiar objects into unfamiliar illusion." (History of Modern Art, Harry N.Abrams: 1986). The work has durance; and asks an archeology of the spirit.
Indeed, Roberts's Untitled (33 1/2"x30"), another acrylic on wood, seems an artifact distant in time and sensibility: a viewer excavates, recovers its mind and moment. The general tone, as in ancient Greek urns, blends black and the browns and ochres of oxide pigments, rusts and russets; there is a veneer of scratches... wear. At top left, in quiet brushwork, one discerns a female form which bends over another figure bent still lower and there rendered in a darker, more turbulent brush. The panel could image a scene of this moment, or pass as an object from Pompei.
Untitled 7 piece, an acrylic on Wood (81 1/2"x36 1/2"), is one of Robert's multiple panel works: here, seven segments bolted together. I have wondered why I, and several other viewers at the opening, felt this to be a 'creation' piece. Certainly, in Untitled 7 piece, there is no Adam reaching to God. A horizontal band cuts centrally through seven joined panels and this mid-field, vertically expanded for the center panel, is filled with turbulent green, red, white soft-edge contours which appear both anthropomorphic and stellar. It evokes an inception, a birth not of anonymous clouds or stars, but of named constellations. The panels which immediately flank the center reveal in the zones above and below the mid-band, closed yellow nuclei on deep quiescent blue. The leftmost end panel, in red, yellow and ochres, sports an arrow-like trapezoid. The rightmost panel is an inversion of the first, bringing the series 'full circle.' The artist notes that in fact the second panel from the right preceded all others in creation.
Roberts' art is not easy to categorize: at times Expressionist, the work evades the Rorschach of Abstractionism; it recalls Neo-Romanticism, but often with disillusion; it experiments with media and technique, but drives at content. One discerns kinship with the Fauvistic Expressionism and the outlook, a dark or bitter spirituality, of George Rouault; the material experiments and dark nuances of Albert Pinkham Ryder; Tchelitchew's Protean, often liquid contouring of mass. Roberts' art even more strongly brings to mind Polish artist Jerzy Tchorzewski, less known to Americans than elsewhere despite 15 Polish Painters (MOMA: 1961). A work such as Untitled (50 1/2"x50 1/2) reveals at right a human form, but at left is an eerily Minotaurish bulk; a white electric crackle plays throughout the entire image. Roberts observes that he nurtures a motif, but keeps a bedside sketchbook to record further elaborations: an image grows, and forms often seize their own evolution. Much like Rouault, Roberts's image collaborates in the artist's own moulding of an individual spirituality: they are icons of a tentative, searching spirit born of raw materiality. There is almost a Russian sense of unspoken faith emerging from a fallen world.
Nor is Roberts' art easy to articulate: it stands apart from the established 'artword' machinery, what George Steiner called our age's "secondary and parasitic discourse." Steiner warned: "we cultivate those bards who are most reviewable." It is one of the great strengths of Roberts' art -- a viewer can't fall back on old familiars, and yet, Roberts' art outmaneuvers the ubiquitous image flutter, skimmable and pre-digested, of our 'visual' age. Steiner said: "The best readings of art are art." Steiner further cautions of serious art, music, writing that "Its solicitation and governance of us are those of patient necessity." One is compelled and wants to experience Roberts's art; and comes away to find new realizations because of it. In Roberts's panels, as Steiner asserted: "The text, the painting, the composition are wagers on lastingness. They embody the dur desir de durer ('the harsh, demanding desire for durance')." (In Real Presences).
Like that of many highly individual artists -- Rouault; Pavel Tchelitchew; Jerzy Tchorzewski -- Roberts's art cannot be merely scanned, pigeon-holed; nor can it be passed by. Strikingly, individually, Larry Roberts is doing significant art. But don't take anyone's word for it -- take a look. You will find there a vision known to poets and the perceptive; a vision of the world seen through a glass, darkly, in which...