Sunday, January 25, 2015

Roger Tibbetts: Making and Meaning

By Carl Belz

Author's note: Roger Tibbetts and I were colleagues at Brandeis in the 1990s. He is now on the faculty at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. The essay that follows was written for an exhibition of his work at the Edward Mitchell Bannister Gallery at Rhode Island College in Providence taking place from January 22 to February 20, 2015

The modern painting we designate as modernist is distinguished by its insistently critical consciousness of the process and problematics of comprehending the self and the world the self occupies in its ongoing present – insistent even to the extent that such consciousness can be regarded as its overriding subject as well as its route to knowledge. Which is to say modernist paintings are metaphorical worlds unto themselves, present to us with all the baggage of everyday experience – with the puzzlements and frustrations and satisfactions that naturally and equally attend our urge to meaning and our quest for understanding – worlds spreading before us and mirroring not our appearance or how the world looks to us but how we go about being in it.
Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 23 x 23 inches.
Imagine those worlds situated on and identified with the picture surface. Identified with, not because that’s where they literally are, but because painting’s surface, particularly the flatness of that surface, has from the outset been the first thing about painting that modernist practice has called attention to in distinguishing it as a medium of art. While painting’s Old Masters encouraged us first of all to look through the picture surface, as if it were a window, our modernist masters have encouraged us first of all to look at it, as if it were a two-dimensional plane. Not that any of them, older or younger, ever took literally whatever conventions were guiding painting at the time they were at work in their studios. As much as they may have painted away their physical surfaces in the service of a three-dimensional illusion, for instance, so did the Old Masters regularly balance and adjust them in order to make them right. And while their modernist counterparts have made a point of acknowledging up front that same physical surface, so have they regularly found ways to open and deepen it and thereby allow it to breathe and visually accommodate us.
Untitled, 2014, acrylic on canvas over panels, 95 ¼ x 67 inches.
As his pictures firmly and convincingly attest, Roger Tibbetts knows all of the above and more about the painting surface and its capacities, knows that as much as it may identify his medium it more immediately provides and frames the site where his fictive worlds take shape and his job of work is accomplished. And work it he does, variously structuring it with geometrically derived but irregular slabs and tilted or inclined squares and rectangles; distributing within it patterns of clustered circles and floating ellipses both solid and transparent; coating it with stolidly brushed color yet also scoring it precisely and graphically with a stencil or straight edge. But at the same time, and along with working his painting surface as an accommodating receptacle, he additionally allows it to assert a pictorial presence of its own that’s able to rotate those circles into ellipses within the same spatial continuum and shift by 180 degrees the orientation of those clustered circles – as though, like Alice and her looking glass, we’d somehow been transported inside the pictorial surface before us and become able to see the world imaged there not only reversed but also from the inside out. And thus do Roger Tibbetts’s worlds – worlds thoughtful and engaging and brought patiently and deliberately into being, worlds complex but accessible yet possessing leavening wonder as well – remind us, in the way quality art both old and new periodically reminds us, that the route to knowledge sometimes requires us to suspend our disbelief and follow the dictates of our emotions instead of the concepts in our minds.
Untitled, 2013, pencil, ink and acrylic on paper, 75 x 47 inches.
The creative process everywhere evident in Roger Tibbetts’s pictures is appealing in its visual richness and variety, its evocations of the links between making marks and making meaning, and particularly in the wide range of its embrace, which articulates, and thereby acknowledges, each picture’s individuality by allowing each to glimpse for us its gestation and resolution, as if revealing each in the fullness of its evolution from becoming to being. At one end of that range would be a large untitled 2013 painting teeming with clustered disks that appear to be multiplying before our eyes – a pictorial world pulsing in a state of becoming – while at the other end would be the painting, also untitled, of a somber black wall inflected by a few ghostly rectangles and slender horizontal fissures providing hints to spaces we can neither enter nor identify, a haunting image that remains largely resistant to eyesight – a pictorial world of self-contained being.
Untitled, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 67 x 47 ½ inches.
Becoming and being. Thus paired, the paintings rightly assume dynamic vitality for us, but the pairing at the same time risks allowing the impression that they are respectively bound to one side or the other of an either/or existential condition. Which would be misleading, insofar as the pictures in question – including any of the pictures in this exhibition – can no more be so defined and confined than can the lived experiences to which they inevitably relate. More accurate and closer to the truth, including the truth of how we experience becoming and being within our personal selves, would be a recognition that regardless of the relative emphases expressed in any given picture on the particular condition of its becoming and being, the condition itself in all cases comprises a continuum within which they coexist and simultaneously interact to determine any picture’s individual character, render it whole, and bring it to consciousness. Which is the condition that subsumes all others in framing Roger Tibbetts’s fictive worlds, directing his creative process, and signaling as distinctly modernist his art and thought – while at the same time enabling us to share and know both in the way we know ourselves.
Untitled, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 22 ¾ x 22 ½ inches.
Untitled, 2014, pencil and ink on canvas, 35 ¼ x 25 inches.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. He lives with his wife Barbara in Franconia, NH and writes about the art of our time.

No comments: