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To adequately describe an encounter with Winston Roeth’s work is difficult. One becomes acutely aware that any immediate associations might easily slip towards superficiality, unjustly betraying one’s inimitable experience of the quiet, yet lively, presence of the work.
Roeth (born 1945, Chicago) is a contemporary artist working with a reduced painting vocabulary in which the central concerns are the phenomenology of colour, light and space. Roeth’s formative years as an art student at the University of Illinois, University of New Mexico and the Royal Academy of Art, London were during the 1960s—the advent of Minimalism in America which brought to the fore elements of repetition, a reduction of subjectivity, geometry, temporality, materiality, seriality and phenomenological experience. Roeth has cited early influences including Ad Reinhardt, Brice Marden and Robert Ryman, not necessarily aesthetically, but rather intellectually in their enquiry of painting. For Roeth, the challenge lies in expanding this lineage, which he does effectively through combining the stringency of minimalist structures with the sensuality of exquisite colour.
Roeth is known for various ongoing bodies of work—grids, bi-chrome panels where an ‘interior’ form is bordered by a differently coloured ‘exterior’ band, and multicoloured slate tiles arranged into groupings of horizontal lines, rectangular grid configurations or totem-like vertical structures. Regardless of the structure, Roeth’s intent is to explore the interaction between colour (pigment) and light on a material surface to create spatial depth, illusion and kinesis (movement of the plane), thereby questioning notions of perception.
Roeth’s exhibition of sparsely installed recent paintings at Jensen Gallery, Sydney comprised three slate panel works and six tempera paintings on honeycomb panel or dibond aluminium. The exhibition was lit with filtered natural light from five overhead skylights, as well as light from the entranceway façade. This is significant, as the paintings were experienced under natural, yet shifting, light conditions, therefore were subject to subtle transformational and optical effects.
Whether working on dibond, wood or slate, Roeth, using a brush, applies layer after layer of pure pigment mixed with tempera to slowly and extensively build the surface. The final colour evolves through the construction of almost microscopic substrate layers of finely tuned hues. Evidently, Roeth has refined his process and technique over a long period of time and the result is mesmerising, as evident in Two Moons (2010).
Two Moons is a vertical diptych, comprising two uniform squares that sit approximately five centimetres apart. Both feature a central black form bordered by a cool acid gold band (top) and a warm bronze gold band (bottom). After sustained looking the black surfaces begin to dissolve into velvety matter, indefinite deep spaces where the visual pace has slowed. Kinesis begins to take effect and temporal tensions occur within the plane—the central ‘voids’ become more pronounced, emanating outwards at a glacial speed, whereas the eye’s navigation of the gold perimeter quickens.
When viewing Roeth’s bi-chrome paintings, such as the series of Portraits – Scarlet, Light Blue and Violet (2012) and Paradisio (2008), one recalls the work of Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Jo Baer. While Newman’s ‘zips’ of raised colour enhance the plane’s central symmetry, Roeth’s bands of colour draw attention to the peripheral line (or drawing) between two colours, creating the simultaneous illusion of containment and expansiveness.
The square-shaped Paradisio comprises a brilliant turquoise blue ‘interior’ form painted underneath a warm yellow gold ‘exterior’ band that parallels the painting’s edge, reinforcing the support’s physicality. Under fluctuating light conditions, the gold strip cools off rapidly, or warms up slowly, further enhancing the dominant flatness of the interior form. Over time, the eye filters detail of subtle brush incidents that undermine the pristine surface. Eventually, the turquoise pigment dissolves into the tranquil realm of immaterial light and seductive colour, heightening the painting’s mutable and immersive qualities. The vibrancy of Paradisio is contrasted by the imposing presence of Coromandel (2006). Materially dense, Coromandel appears confrontational—a voluminous sanguine red mass hovers over the darkest of black voids—the quiet stasis of the installation is strangely in flux.
In slate works, such as Gold in Blue (2010), light, ephemeral and fleeting, activates the painting’s surface. The composition comprises three by four rows of slate tiles arranged in a horizontal grid. The slate tiles, most likely sourced from Vermont or Maine, are a custom, uniform size (approximately 50.5 x 30.8cm). Whilst being a durable material, the tiles’ toothed edges appear to be crumbling, the fine petticoating enhances the object’s materiality and perceived fragility. Working in a limited chromatic palette, Roeth’s panels range from sky blue, azure, ultramarine to deep indigo interspersed with highlights of acid lemon, soft yellow and warm mustard gold. Using marble dust in varying degrees to create voluminous matt or pearlescent effects, the pigment appears to have a living quality; shifting particles breathe over time becoming opaque or translucent, emerging or receding.
It is clear to see that Roeth has created a reductive set of repetitive compositional devices and working structures in his practice. However, what comes to the fore in the exhibition is the enhanced singularity of each individual painting, both visually and in terms of its transformational effect. Roeth is an intellectual painter and, whilst working within certain concise or systematic modes, is perhaps more interested in an open ended, not confined, process through which he can achieve a certain aesthetic freedom. The paintings have a presence; at first, the exhibited works appeared arbitrary, however they unfolded gently and revealed themselves slowly, transcending into a realm of pure aestheticism and exquisite feeling. The result was a considered and sophisticated exhibition.
Winston Roeth, Gold in Blue, 2010. Tempera on 12 slate panels. Courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney.
Winston Roeth, Coromandel, 2006. Tempera on honeycomb panel. Courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney.