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Winston Roeth at Bartha Contemporary, London

14 March - 28 April 2017

Review by John Stephens

Portrait in Light 2014  Tempera on dibond

By contrast, Red and Gold, a similarly arranged painting, doesn’t seem to have a void created by the framing device that you can look through into a space beyond.  Instead, it’s a field of colour that seems to move forward out of its frame.  The subtle shifts, from a bright cadmium to something of a shade of red, are still there after lengthy looking, but it doesn’t have the same feeling of gravity.  Here it’s the plane of colour that floats.  This might possibly have something to do with the square format of the painting, so there’s no implied ‘bottom or top’.  But it might also have something to do with the density of the cadmium red, which doesn’t have the translucency of the blue panel.

Red and Gold 2014  Tempera on dibond

The anomaly in this show, Blue Circle Painting, works differently, although it relies on playing with the same idea of the viewer’s understanding of space and of establishing an aesthetic experience.  There are no planes of colour to entice the play of light across the surface. Instead, the two closely concentric blue circles have the effect of simultaneously being incised into the white ground and hovering in front of it.  But the more you look, the more the latter sensation takes precedence.

Blue Circle Painting 2005  Tempera on dibond

The fourth piece, Quartet No. 2, is perhaps, by comparison, more complex.  Consisting of four panels of rough-cut poplar wood, it is unlike the others. The painting surface is uneven, revealing saw marks left by a circular or chain saw, and having the effect of creating directional movements, sometimes horizontal, sometimes making an arc and sometimes diagonal. Each panel is painted in a single colour, two red and two in a deep blue, with no paint texture visible to compete with the texture of the cut wood.  In addition, the colour seemed to have had a pearlescent medium added so that it has acquired a lustrous sheen, reflecting the light off its surface.  The red panels are arranged side by side in the centre of a rowed configuration with the two blues on the outside.  This piece is as close to an ensemble configuration as this show allows, and it was possible to experience something of the effects of the larger ensembles, because I found myself looking first at one panel, then another, then moving back and looking again.


Quartet no. 2  2014, Tempera on poplar wood

As with the other pieces in the show, the effects of prolonged looking invoked a sense of doubt in my seeing.  I couldn’t be sure that the reds, or indeed the blues, were the same; there were again the nuanced shifts of light and colour.  The pearlescence played some role in that, as it enhanced what appeared to be the depersonalised application of the paint. It was just the colour on the sawn wood surface, and then the direction of cut came into play. There was an inferred bodily movement as if I was resisting a movement to mirror what was going on in each of paintings in the group, each with a different response.  I believe this may not be an unusual phenomenon, but with more pictorially complex paintings where there’s more to engage the eye, one is perhaps less conscious of it.  Here, you are very much aware, and I’m minded of the claim in the exhibition notes that “Roeth creates paintings that reveal the complexities that underlie the human experience of seeing and our awareness of colour”. I’d go a little further and add that because of the pared-down elements of the paintings, the work does challenge the way you see, but also makes you aware of how seeing is very much tied up with an aesthetic consciousness.

With only four pieces taken from the many that Roeth has made over the last decade, this show makes no concessions to any sense of coherence as a body of work; the more so as, apart from two, which could be read as a pair, each work is different from the others.  Over the last five decades Roeth’s career has been as an abstract painter embracing an obviously minimalist or pared-down approach. Indeed, his work has for some time (with some exceptions, one of which is in this show) consisted largely of panels of a single colour, often with a painted border.  Sometimes the panels are made from natural material such as slate or rough-sawn wood, thereby giving a naturally textured surface to which the paint is applied. More often though, they are painted on flat panels or - more recently - painted on aluminium dibond. He has tended to show these panels as ensembles arranged in large grids so that the colours can be read in relation to one another.  He claims that in allowing the ambient light of wherever they’re sited to play over their surfaces, he aims to create nuances of change with slight shifts in the colour.

Without the benefit of seeing the work as a set of ensembles, the show at Bartha left me contemplating each as a single piece, and that had the effect of focusing my mind more intensely on what was going on in each of them.  Confronted with one work at a time, I found myself looking for a long time at very little. And I don’t intend any facetiousness in saying that. The impact of the site-specific circumstances of the venue, the light, ought to still hold good with prolonged looking, and this was ultimately very much my experience.  Certainly, the shifts of colour were in evidence in their very subtly nuanced way.

Framed with a band of mustard yellow paint that is almost like metallic gold, Portrait in Light offers an experience - as if the viewer were looking through a window into an endless pale sky-blue space.  The tempera paint is immaculately applied, offering no clue as to how it got there.  You’re drawn, floating into the space, staring, and the longer you look, the shifts appear.  They’re so subtle, though, that you wonder whether this is an illusion. Drawing back and considering the work more formally, the question arises about the relationship between the two elements, the frame and the contained blue plane.  There’s no particular chromatic play-off between the two; the frame seems to act as just that, something to open a way into the blue and enhance its sense of void. And curiously, despite it having an airy feel to it, there’s very much a sense of top and bottom.  That’s not because it has gravity, it’s more to do with one’s own sense of weight and orientation, rather like looking at the sky and moving your eye down to the horizon to become earth-bound again.  And I was left wondering whether this has something to do with the psychology of visual perception and how we read colour, and more generally rationalise aesthetic experience, where we seek some resonance with our own bodily sensations and our inner sense of aesthetic logic.

Installation shot, courtesy of Bartha Gallery