An Alchemical Spirituality
During the month of June, the Catherine Dianich Gallery featured an exhibition of recent work by artist Hugh Roberts. Most of the works were painted in oil, while some expressively used the added element of found materials. Work that used both imagery and pure expressive painting as subject matter were exhibited side by side. Despite Roberts' insistence on an eclectic pictorial range, the body of work (which expanded onto the walls of Amy's Bakery Arts Café) clearly exemplified his concerned approach to process and preoccupation with light as subject. The show was hung in a manner advantageous to the individual works and revealed the strong, elegant and knowledgeable painting of a serious artist.
Hugh Roberts' work is familiar in Southern Vermont, as he has exhibited locally for over two decades, in private and professional art venues, and regularly at the Windham Art Gallery cooperative since its inception. The show at Dianich seemed to allow more space for the work to be seen, and this was good for the paintings, which are all very charismatic.
Roberts selected work to show the amazing breadth and range he employs as expressive means in his open-ended creative process. This process might result in an image of landscape or of figures, or it might end up using the paint and its application as a central focus. But what is clear about Roberts is that images result from the painting process and are not preconceived. The emerging presence of light works subliminally as both subject and symbolic object of the painter's private ponderings.
The windows on the street side of Roberts' painting studio are masked, limiting distractions from the outside world. Within his space, he engages in a personal search and discovery of a deeply philosophical internal dialogue, as reflected in paint. He is aware that a person, place or sense of time can captivate the viewer and that a single brush stroke or group of strokes might work as well. His artist's statement for the gallery show says: "Recently I have been interested in obscuring or veiling subject matter in order to produce a sense of mystery; to intrigue the viewer and thereby stimulate the imagination. I want to suggest via semi-abstraction rather than delineate."
When walking around the gallery and moving from painting to painting, the viewer could experience and re-experience a sense of "specialness" because of each artwork's strong, independent character. An absence of formulaic or stylistic predilection made it possible to experience firsthand Roberts' process of "not projecting" and of being surprised by each new solution, every excavation revealing a different unexpected treasure.
In a small work called "Station #1," figures, almost ghostly, stand waiting in the semi-light of an underground rail station. Expressive vertical paint slashes are the supporting pillars of the architectural interior. A Hopper-esque sense of displacement and anonymity permeates those waiting at the station. "Station #2" goes further in a dramatic sense, its figures revealing intense psychological intimacy. Bathed in an apocalyptic orange light, melting the darkness, like radioactive sherbet, they reflect the toxic anxiety of inner-city life.
Two pieces, similar in size and hung side by side, made a good comparison of Roberts' use of disparate means to achieve equal strength. They were "Little House" and "Presence.""Little House" opens to a deep atmospheric space in the center, revealing a house-like shape, visible in the distance. Adversely, in "Presence," vertical brushstrokes--similar to those used in "Little House"--don't "branch out" at the top and are more straight, emphasizing their gestural expressiveness. Brushstrokes fill the center area of focus and are spatially more in the foreground or just beneath the surface. One stares at their subtleties. The deep, dreamy space of "Little House," versus the in-your-face expression of "Presence," seems almost to suggest gender in the subject--first female, then male.
A consistent central and iconic focus permeates Roberts' work, as does a concept of duality, recognized in the dramatic and symbolic contrast between light and darkness. It is tempting to speak in religious terms and say the subject matter is polyistic. The paintings imply a privately spiritual and outwardly visionary view.
A painting entitled "Nocturne" depicted a gray-ochre moon caught at the horizon. The subject is not the moon but the light it gives off, brooding and romantic. Here, concentrated emotion is expressive but restrained, recalling the moody twilight landscapes of Jacob Van Ruisdale. The title might in fact refer to a work by Albert Pinkham Ryder. Roberts lets a soft splash of ochre shimmer, reflecting the moon in the sky. Another, almost invisible orb (the negative inverse?), slides quietly down a long brushstroke.
Works such as "Sinking Target," "Harlequin," "Relief" and "Range" show a preoccupation with objects or materials found by the artist and also introduced into the work. The inclusion of such materials is sometimes self-analytical, as in "Range," where a piece of cloth seems alternately like a range of mountains or like. . . a piece of cloth. The inclusion of such found elements can also suggest humor or drama, as in "Sinking Target," which includes a cereal box once used for target practice. In this piece, the centrally placed box has been shot through with bullet holes; the holes reveal a bright orange color. Highlights in the piece were copperish and silver-green.
Newer works in the exhibit were more thematic in subject and palette. Orchestrated vertical brushstrokes could be either architectural supports or beams of light. They describe a space containing a central pit or cistern, also like a well, or an opening into the earth. This setting seems mythological or alchemical, like a sorcerer's stone or the well from which to draw such. Gradated sepias describe the light-emanating landscapes and their mystical earthen vessels. The theme was further explored in "Dark Cistern" #1 and #2, and in "Portal."
The landscapes exhibited as a group at Amy's Bakery Arts Café carried on the rusty or golden-brown color scheme and seemed directly inspired by Ryder's visionary landscapes and again hinted at Van Ruisdale. Deeply introspective, they are also historically nostalgic. "Modernist" or "post," it's hard to say, but they are conceptual. Carravaggio could also be here mentioned in comparison, as the dramatic light is so important. One never knows, in these twilit woods, whether you'll meet Goldilocks or the Wolf... Good or evil could be around the next bend!
A favorite work was the expressionistic landscape "Cove," which had the looseness and expansive space of Milton Avery's beachscapes with the expressive energy of Ryder's "The Race Track" (depicting a skeleton riding a horse, it was Ryder's last major work). A rounded gesture at the bottom of "Cove" suggests a pool (like previously mentioned "cisterns"), reflecting warm heat from above. Three shapes included a red central orb. As in Mark Rothko's work, the shapes are an issue in themselves. This work was expansive, expressive, colorful, loose and suggestive.
These are just five words invoked by Hugh Roberts' intense vision. Through his oeuvre, varied as it is, an intensely honest painter, in love with and devotional in his creative process, emerges in a nostalgic palette as a finder of images which contemplate our reality, good and evil, using the classic metaphor of light emerging from darkness.
Editor's Note: Selected work by Hugh Roberts continues on display at Catherine Dianich Gallery, 139 Main St., Ste. 501 (off the alleyway lobby of Hooker-Dunham Building).
Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont