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February 11 - March 11, 2006 at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica

by Marlena Donohue

"Pixley (Tulare Series),"
2005, acrylic on linen, 32 x 42".

"Goshen (Tulare Series)," 2005,
acrylic on canvas, 48 x 64".

"Lemoncove (Tulare Series),"
2005, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 53".

"Kaweah (Tulare Series),"
2004, acrylic on linen, 32 x 42".
After early Light/Space experiments, Marcia Roberts turned her attention not to actual illumination, but to the stunningly subtle painted manipulation of that property which both physics and art agree is interchangeable with light: color.  To deal with the phenomenological and emotive aspects of light-as-color/color-as-light in non-literal ways, to ask these questions within the hugely loaded baggage of the abstract canvas, and to do this with inventive rigor is pretty darn cool.
Roberts’ work invokes Kasmir Malevich, Minimalism, color-field and Agnes Martin; all are helpful to give a general sense of what Roberts does so well.  But the truth is that this “light business” and Roberts’ astute understanding of it pulls in a much older dialogue and inquiry into what might be called the essential components of human sensed experience (and therefore necessarily of art experience as well): time, light and color.
Such reflections wash over you as you stand gawking at the virtuoso mechanics of these works. Usually the conditions of real light interacting with a sentient changing perceiver create these effects, but Roberts produces them without a light source, just her astoundingly deft and nuanced manipulation of hued pigment. When you stand in front of a work you swear a gallery light is creating an ever so controlled shaft of light strafing from lower right to upper left; however, when you move to take in the next work and the errant, sonorous light that makes these canvases bend and expand, contract and oscillate is in a completely different orientation, you want to have the lights off so you can check your experience against the physical condition in the room. What you are left with if you look and listen: questions about how we order the world through our senses; how we know what we know. . .this is not lightweight stuff.
Roberts’ abstract fields of color and edge involve hundreds of layers of pigment.  The eventual color we read--often a smoky gray-beige, almost a pearly evanescent field--is comprised of calibrations the precision and patience of which are either Zen or surgical, and either way a marvel.  Within a narrow range of a single canvas, Roberts uses colored surface to create in one section a deep and infinite expanse; as the eye tracks just inches to the left, your senses collide with a space flatter than the modernist grid. Then you track a bit further and encounter yet another surface that suggests something totally alien, like aluminum or fiberglass rising to a sensual curve that moves away like a car fender, absolutely subverting any rational depth cues we’d expect from either day to day perception or traditional abstract art.  This is done so deftly that you never notice the breaks in the compositional gestalt.

Her technique is to make a background or border of a unified color (itself comprised of hundreds of layers of diverse pigment), then to float a tilted trapezoidal ghost of a shape in that field whose “corners” never quite materialize but only suggest themselves into and out of space to create this great plastic fluidity.  She runs endless trials on paper until she achieves what to a viewer looks effortless and serene.  Roberts manipulates acrylic paint such that in spots it appears matte, in others glossy.  The border's color is a constant in each work, but the subtle control of what hue and light reside next to it make it appear to change drastically; and those perception-bending contrasts have been turned up more than a notch in current works. (This may dismay those who loved the contemplative tenor of previous works.)

So this artist can paint. But what does this mean in 2006? Since the ‘60s, with the mobilization of real- and cyberspace, real and cyber time, real and cyber materials, real and cyber life, the pursuit of painting has been a contested arena of art production.  And if painting is suspect, abstract painting is so to the second power.  The post modern era has in part been characterized by a kind of allergic reaction to abstract painting because what began in earlier modernism as a universalist intent, a visual language for everyone, ended up as slick and privileged collectibles.

Looking beyond the mastery of Roberts’ formalist approach, consider the meaning of abstract painting she conveys at a time when many accept that to interrogate our slippery, semiotic world, painterly abstraction seems not to be the best vehicle.  But with insouciant painterly grace these works offer a compelling retort.  They stimulate contemplation of essential things: how do we experience, what do we see, how do we make sense of this sea of multifarious perceptions.  Beyond that, they remind us that you cannot extricate meaning from form, and Roberts gives us form that reminds us that perception itself is varied and alchemical.