A couple of months ago I read a Piri Halasz review of the exhibition Painterly Pasted Pictures at Freedman Art in New York. The review drew my attention to the work of Susan Roth, who I had not heard of before. As I was excited by the work I thought I would draw some attention to it. Though I’ve only seen them as jpegs I like how dramatic the paintings are as images, and how this drama pushes and pulls (surges may be a better word) in two directions: the ruffs and ripples of canvas and colour work upwards towards the containing outline, whilst the outline imposes itself on the action it frames: cutting, nipping, tucking and cropping. To me the paintings emphasize how much the superficially similar works of canvas-creasers Steven Parrino or Angela de la Cruz are academic or literary exercises, three-dimensional art theory rather than actual visual art (can that distinction be sustained absolutely? – probably not, but I think it has some truth to it).
As another aside it would be interesting to have the chance to compare Roth’s work (particularly when it tends toward the field) to that of Frank Bowling. Both seem to owe something of their paint application and colour choices to the example of Jules Olitski, and both have used collage to over-come the limitations of colour-field painting. Seen side by side I wonder if Roth’s more extreme use of collage, and the almost aggressive way she shapes her canvases might make Bowling’s paintings (exciting as they can be) look a little constrained, even fussy. But that’s enough musing. Below is an excerpt from a statement by Roth on her process and the evolution of her paintings, followed by a few quotes from critics. I’ve concentrated on the larger shaped, collaged paintings rather than the smaller work (in which actual objects are frequently incorporated) or the recent steel paintings. This partly down to personal preference and partly through lack of space.
Susan Roth on the evolution of her pictures
‘One day in the studio feeling very frustrated, I crumpled up the canvas pieces I was working with and threw them in the middle of the canvas. I abruptly left the studio. Later my husband came in from the studio and exclaimed how he loved the new picture I had started. “A breakthrough!” he proclaimed. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t pulling my leg, but when I looked I immediately grasped the potential and how it had been hiding from me in plain sight.
That was late fall of 1980, and everything flows from there. The here-to-fore thought to be sacrosanct picture plane, it turns out, had been overly literalized. It wasn’t the magic tautness of the abstract plane. It was the surface, a plane being only one type of surface. As the picture roils and crumples, folds and twists back on itself, it redistributes and accumulates volume and mass, consolidating this mass in areas as it thins and stretches in others. This has impact on the ultimate shape of the painting. It happens differently than architecture as it is a result of the organic processes the method produces.
I found I could create single blankets of canvas undulating the whole field. This form is a much different expression and construction than the discreet LASPAC, large area small piece allover cubism, to use the W.D. Bannard term and acronym, of my previously collaged canvases. Edges bunch and compress and then spring back to the default rectangle of the original canvas. Paintings resemble maps of states and other shapes where geometry is interrupted by geology. These become opportunities I’ve used to expand my work and a new dynamic for my paintings expressive power. The shape and masses of the painting engage and weigh upon the viewer. This is not a new aspect of how art communicates, but it certainly emphasizes this property of apprehension.
Since painting is very much about layers and their coincidence and interaction, the exaggerated depth of surface I use provides so many opportunities for variation of application and the piling of layers that unite one surface. I can roller and press opaque layers utilizing the depth of surface and relief to keep them from canceling one another. Early on most of the layers were opaque. This led some critics to exaggerate the similarity to sculpture. As Sarah Rich points out in her 2001 catalog essay on Ellsworth Kelly, “Relief Paintings 1954 – 2001, “Relief’s “in between” qualities made it an important medium to demonstrate that duality of experience in modernity.” As I evolved to using more transparent materials as layers, I was reminded my work is dependent on the principles of painting. This would eventually lead to the skins and boxtops where the collaged material is literally paint, painted elsewhere, allowed to dry, pealed as a skin and manipulated and adhered using more paint, to a canvas or other support. These layers can be almost clear suspending any number of other colors, transparencies, surfaces and viscosities. There are plenty of ways to “punch up” the expression and make it a mirror to the palpable-ness of the now.’
Susan Roth, May 2013
‘Because of their fiercely articulated surfaces and their shaping, Roth’s pictures have sometimes been compared to relief sculpture, but the analogy is not very illuminating. If her shaped canvases have any relation to sculpture, it is to traditional illusionistic relief rather than to any modernist abstract wall-mounted sculptures… No matter how salient Roth’s drawing, how complex the shape, her works read as pictures. They are robust, vigorous, substantial objects, but essentially pictorial ones.’ – Karen Wilkin 1984
‘There is a coarse, very material effect which recalls developments in European abstract right after the war. I am thinking of Dubuffet, Fontana, Burri, Tapies, Millaries and others whose work showed a thick heavy build up of paint, admixtures in the paint, and in general a grossly physical approach to the medium. Lawrence Alloway called this tendency “matter-painting”, Clement Greenberg called it “furtive bas-relief”. It did not result in anything very major in its European incarnations (Tapies and Dubuffet were the best of it) but it did offer a stylistic alternative to the European gesture painting of the time (Mathieu, Hartung, Wols, Hantai, Soulages, Tal Coat, etc.). It was this same “matter painting” that so influenced the early Olitski who then went onto combine it with the scale and colour awareness of North American abstraction.’ – Ken Moffett, 1986
‘There is no evidence of applied color theory in these pictures, just color itself–naked, yes; raw, perhaps; but her color always defies conventional expectations, whether the expectations are found in the color wheel or the vague gerrymandering that expects color to convey a “message.” I mean, is the rawness of the red in Krishna the red of anger expressed on behalf of this or that mistreated group? Roth ought to be mad that her type of painting has been marginalized by today’s art system. She might be mad about how her being female has worked out in the zone where she lives her life. But how would we ever know? And what would it matter? This red is bound to the experience of this picture. Regardless of whether the interpretations are true, they are beside the point of that experience. To editorialize about the experience is to separate it from its value as art. There are lots of red pictures. Krishna, like Matisse’s Red Room, is a good red picture. Those are as rare as interpretations are common.’ – John Link, 2001. (You can read the whole article here, which includes the images referred to)