Saturday, April 4th, 2015

Windows on a Complex World: Russell Roberts at Heskin Contemporary

Russell Roberts: Paper Bed Concrete Head at Heskin Contemporary

March 12 through April 18, 2015
443 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th avenues)
New York, 212 967 4972

Installation shot of Russell Roberts: Paper Bed Concrete Head at Heskin Contemporary, 2015
Installation shot of “Russell Roberts: Paper Bed Concrete Head” at Heskin Contemporary, 2015.

Oh the grid! The enduring inheritance of Africa, absorbed by the West through Modernism, the grid continues to be a beguiling structure for abstract painters today, the uses ranging from sophisticated play with the grid as trope to culturally driven references to textiles, patterns, architecture, urbanism.

The grid paintings of Russell Roberts belong to a line with roots to Hans Hofmann and branches to such contemporaries as Joan Waltemath, Stanley Whitney and Stephen Westfall, albeit that each of these artists have very different aesthetic intentions in their work with the grid.

Roberts’ previous decades of work had no repeated structure or system, no set scale, frame or image, palette or approach. The paintings yielded multiple gestalts and were provocative explorations that combined painting history with personal imagery in terms that were unique to each painting. These new grid paintings, therefore, represent a dramatic departure for him. Roberts has reprised familiar elements of an older image of his own, one that sees complex blue grounds, violet shapes, and both rough hewn and delicate lines in orange and brown. In canvases nearly identical in scale, white or blue rectangles are deployed as modular components in a system of template-derived lines and areas that are intricately connected by fluid curvilinear lines.

Russell Roberts, Paper Bed, Concrete Head #12, 2015. Oil on canvas, 56 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary
Russell Roberts, Paper Bed, Concrete Head #12, 2015. Oil on canvas, 56 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary

These grid-based compositions are uniform from canvas to canvas but within the multiplicity of parts there is immense variation, and differences emerge. Roberts’ grid brings to mind rows of windows on a building in which each aperture describes the variable and the constant — rather than, say, evoking a checkerboard or gingham print. With an urban feel to them, they are about how people live, about chance encounters and social serendipity. Here, variously sized blue vertical or horizontal rectangles are stacked atop each other creating large zones or areas, producing dynamic pictorial relationships as well as a strong surface design.

Heskin Contemporary is a ground-level, north-of-Chelsea gallery space with an old-school downtown feel to it: its long narrow asymmetrical rooms are the antithesis of the white cube. Rather than overwhelming this cozy gallery, Roberts’ eight large, uniformly sized, off-square canvases and one medium sized outlier lent unexpected expansiveness to the space. The paintings are window-like in scale, structure and color alike, and the blue rectangles, painted and full of air, offer glimpses of deep space. A datum linking all eight paintings is formed by horizontal white or bare surfaces that define the top edges of the consistent lower third portion of each painting. The repetition of these strong “lines” link the paintings and reiterate the shape of the architecture of the gallery, visually unifying the latter’s disparate sections.

Roberts engages the unending argument between material and pictorial form using a broad spectrum of painterly techniques. This allows him to meet the challenge of making a new image by repeating the same structure with aplomb. Each painting is unique in mood and information despite Roberts’ self imposed repetition of shape, form, structure and color — yet success is really due to his deft brushwork and relentless attention to the drawing within the work. The paint application differs within each painting from carefully applied opaque layers to ones that evoke a brusque and provisional quality. This clash of high to low skill used in the same painting appears without any sense of cleverness, irony or nonchalance. Some canvases show evidence of a lot of rethinking, removing and re-painting contrasted with areas that the artist decided were perfect after the initial address, which expands the range of emotion and increases, at least to my mind, the notion of time in the work.

Russell Roberts, Paper Bed, Concrete Head #10, 2015. Oil on canvas, 56 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary
Russell Roberts, Paper Bed, Concrete Head #10, 2015. Oil on canvas, 56 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary

In these complex paintings, rich in complex spatial propositions, the main white and blue areas evoke Matissian plays of figure and ground, while within the smaller white or blue areas Roberts complicates foreground and background with shapes and lines that easily swap roles. Various marks and lines cut through and exit the box-like shapes. The light white areas contain orange and purple shapes, sinuous lines that can feel both comic and anthropomorphic. Occasional brownish-green shapes or strokes connote‘stuff’ tucked into interstitial spaces like closets, corridors or in-between walls. Each element is interconnected and dependent on other parts. Lines often toy or flirt with shapes, bisecting or breaking off, linking disparate areas, yet a strong sense of liberation and harmony is achieved. Perhaps Roberts has engaged these forms in this way to serve as an apt metaphor to describe the complexities of world we live in today.

The poetic title of the exhibition, “Paper Bed Concrete Head,” reverberates as sounds in the ear much in the way the forms and gestures in Roberts’ work themselves reappear and repeat in varied orientations and patterns. The enormous variety of lines, gestural marks, and organic and abstract forms spark associations with many modern art approaches and contemporary strategies: Roberts’ cobalt blues and vivid oranges bring de Kooning to mind, for instance.

An accomplished, mature artist long proven in the medium of oil paint, Roberts has undertaken something risky in this ambitious project. The results upend expectations of serial abstract painting.

Russell Roberts, Paper Bed, Concrete Head #1, 2015. Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary
click to enlarge