The Recent Paintings
of Russell Roberts
" Wanting Fewer Things But Reaching Out For Everything"
by Jennifer Riley for Exhibition Catalogue, Russell Roberts: Pockets of Accumulation, October 2010
Russell Roberts is an accomplished mature abstract artist working in the medium of paint for some time. In his new abstract paintings multiple gestalts and provocative explorations of painting history combine into images that resist easy categorization. Roberts embraces the flexibility and fluidity of the medium of painting for both its literal and metaphorical possibilities.
In a time of widening spectacle, gloss and speed, Roberts exploits the slowness of the medium's liquidity and transparency, its opacity and density. Some works feature line others celebrate form, many juggle or balance both. Using fragments, layers, lines, drips, washes and erasures his oil paintings depict a stratified and changing world in which multiple formal differences and often opposing elements conjoin to form new and integrated identities. In his complex structures, he collides organic irregularity with geometric and biomorphic shapes, and articulates stretches of canvas with an expansive range of unpredictable and constantly surprising color. Whether intuitive or willed, these dissimilar elements are applied in an endless play of chance imagery that becomes a principle order where the primary subject is the intensity of multiplicity itself.
In an age of TV and texting, we have become good at being very fast viewers. These paintings can be read fast but they reward extended viewing because the terms of each painting are unique to themselves.There is no repeated system or structure: no set number of layers, no typical palette, no set scale for either the frame or the images within. Each painting unfolds or comes into being according to its own set of problems which allow this group to have multiple gestalts. "Untitled No. 4" and "Untitled No.13" both give a sideways glance to the grid and then part ways. One goes towards the biomorphic and one towards the geometric. In both, differentiated strokes perform double duty as mark, form, light, air, branch or beam. In "Untitled No.13" a loose weave of dark strokes lay over two hot orangey-red horizontal bands that straddle a thickening pale yellow and white band. Wispy lighter lines of diluted burnt umber grow from and echo the woven form and smaller dashes of red and orange dot the dark forms like lichen under a microscope. By pulling the ground color forward and placing it on top of what one initially reads as middle ground and background Roberts challenges logical spatial divisions in these paintings. Foreground, middle ground and background, the horizon line and orientations such as up or down, begin to become interchangeable, mixed, even hazy. In many of his images, as if in a dream the familiar slowly trades place with unfamiliar.
If this image primarily elicits associations of nature and saturated light, "Untitled No. 4" is an urban counterpoint. It's densely layered angular forms and incongruent color recalls the city as seen from above, where the fractures are multiple and edges are both sharp and ragged. Variously scaled rectilinear shapes, lines and fragmented shards of color, are separated by thin washes and planes of cool blue that unify large sections. One can almost hear the clamor of the street. Pockets of intensely colored smaller shapes seem to peer out and whistle from the under layers. Passages of white and orange, like construction barriers push in from left and right to draw attention to a ghostlike violet structure that reminds one of a stadium or a building in the process of being built or of coming down.
As a New York City dweller Roberts bears witness to the endless transitions of his home town and he is keenly aware of how certain moments of specificity, passion and intensity translate to his emotions. These are subtly layered works that draw both subliminally from others, other art forms and many places in the world.The works can be frenetic and meditative, restrained and exuberant, sometimes more of one thing than another and sometimes all at once. His touch can have the sweeping grace of a gossamer wing or an awkward inelegance of a broken note. Often the placement of shapes, colors and texture bear traces of chaos because he attempts to get them to do things like float or to be dense to reflect a specific feeling or inner vibe that is not merely difficult to do in paint but which are often totally contradictory to the physical circumstance. Some finished works having undergone years of reworking, contain passages and moments that are impossible to account for.
This group is Roberts' strongest and most declarative works to date. Roberts has enthusiastically embraced of the legacy painting and married it with his considerable knowledge of art history. Viewers can appreciate informed technical innovations that counterpoise an immediate recognition of styles echoing of former generations of abstract painters. There is an awareness of Matisse, Derain, Pollock, Gorky and Tomlin in the work, as well as of contemporary painters such as Bill Jensen and John Walker, yet he clearly has no allegiance to a specific methodology. His playful disregard for dichotomies between the organic and the geometric and between representation and abstraction has opened the work to become increasingly grand in scope.
The magic of Roberts' work is how much of life and painting culture has found a place there. That there is so much to see, is due to a permissive and acquisitive impulse for source material that values inclusiveness and expansiveness as he embraces the world to screen things in rather than to screen things out.