Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Serious looking

Winston Roeth: New WorksJensen
4 February – 12 March 2009

One of the great ironies of conceptual art is that despite the anti-retinal position stated by the influential Marcel Duchamp, many of the first generation conceptualists like Weiner, Kosuth and Bochner adored painting and were big fans of artists like Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. And even an artist like Robert Rauschenberg, a close friend of John Cage, was very influenced at Black Mountain College by Josef Albers in his theories of colour perception. He was taught how to look, despite his practice being so different.

Albers’ Bauhaus-based theories list various laws of colour interaction, discussing optical phenomena like after-images and the complementary hue-tinged washes that effect planes of neutral colours like grey. Albers and his teacher Johannes Itten wrote wonderfully informative books studying the retina’s neural behaviour in response to juxtaposed planes of contrasting hue.

I mention all this because though colour optics have been out of fashion for a while they seem to be returning. Consummate colourists now are gaining more recognition, particularly those like English artist Bridget Riley and (in this present case) American painter Winston Roeth, who create colours in the brain that are not on any painting. What you see is often not what you get. Strange things happen between the eye that looks and the vision that is experienced, especially when the light is natural and strong.

Roeth’s coloured tempera planes place pressure on the lines of white gallery wall between grids or pairs of panels. They also chromatically influence painted iridescent frames that delineate outer edges. Usually the patina on his flat aluminium or rough slate panels has a soft matt velvety quality with no sheen at all. However this artist is also very interested in lustre and the pearlescent. When he uses a grid, he likes to contrast organic ‘natural’ hues associated with vegetation with synthetic metallic chroma linked to minerals.

Yet Roeth’s work is not formulaic. The combinations are cleverly positioned so each colour resonates effectively with its neighbours while also being gorgeous in its own right as an isolated unit. Photographs don’t come close to representing the sensation of standing in front of these paintings. They demand concentration over time so you can think carefully about what is happening chromatically before you.

Jensen's large downstairs gallery, with its white walls and diffuse natural light is particularly effective in displaying Roeth’s colour skills. The four paintings are meticulously positioned. Upstairs the ambience is different due to the dark red, inner brick walls which really make the panelled works glow. The other white walls are used to present grids of golden lines on coloured paper. They are positioned at irregular intervals for maximum effect to catch the light streaming in from the end window. The arrangement here is about pragmatics, not aesthetic organisation.

It is clear that Roeth as a colourist, is quite unique. The closest talent in terms of colour sensibility we have in New Zealand would be Philip Trusttum whose forms are wildly different and also figurative. His applications are different but his juxtapositions are similar.It’s a very smart show at Jensen that is not flashy but restrained and rich in nuance. The work leaves it to you to approach it with keen curiosity. To extract its treasures at your own pace.

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