Los Angeles

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

Kuhlenschmidt-Simon Gallery

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s nonrepresentational paintings are inherently unstable. They exploit the metaphysical dialectic of presence/absence, interior/exterior, identity/difference through a series of formal discontinuities that create a multiplicity of possible readings. Gilbert-Rolfe achieves this largely through a strategy of decentering, forcing the viewer to discover ways in and out of each individual work, as well as through the apparent disunity of the installation as a whole. By deliberately clustering vertical strips of color toward the outer edge of the canvas, the artist is able to refocus attention to a literal and metaphoric periphery. As chromatic and spatial dissonances refuse to allow interior forms to gel, we also become aware of the importance of the space between the paintings themselves and each work’s tendency to spill over into its neighbor, as if it were proliferating itself in an endless transmutation.

Gilbert-Rolfe’s recent “History and Seduction” paintings expand upon this game plan by grounding the artwork as a conceptual and sensual passage from outer to inner space. By outside, one thinks as much of the received information of art-historical encoding as the compositional parameters of each individual canvas. Gilbert-Rolfe’s predilection for monochromatic color fields owes an obvious debt to Suprematism, in particular Kasimir Malevich’s transrational notion of zaum, that empty void beyond reason where nothing is perceived by sensation. The work’s careful attention to color relationships, specifically in the way each hue is allowed a considerable degree of spatial autonomy, echoes Matisse, while Gilbert-Rolfe’s admiration of Robert Ryman (the painting as an object) is well documented.

Most of the new works are predominantly black (the “history” element of the series title) or yellow (“seduction”), and they range in surface texture from a flat mat finish to highly glazed, brushy impasto. Taken simply, history can be read as a black hole, a metaphor for death, or a dense block of space that sucks in light. Seduction, by contrast, is seen as a terrain, an almost erotic, tactile surface that radiates light from within, that leads the viewer (and his/her collective baggage of history) astray toward pure sensuality.

On closer examination, however, the works are considerably more complicated. Like Ryman, Gilbert-Rolfe works on square canvases or wooden panels, creating at least an objective basis for symmetry. Yet the unifying pictorialism of each central field is dislocated by smaller peripheral color fields that serve as decentering devices. This is exemplified by three paintings from 1988 that, hung here in a group against a black wall, constantly modified each other’s formal parameters and retinal impact. Initially, the most compelling of the three was the one on the far right, Similarity Seduction. In this work, done in oil and mat acrylic on wood, the predominant yellow exudes an interior glow and sense of boundless depth that anchors the viewer’s gaze firmly in the center of the painting—at least momentarily. One’s eye quickly starts to wander to the right outer edge, with its alternating vertical bars of shiny black, mat black, and Day-Glo pink. While the blacks are suffused with echoes of reifying history, the pink recalls Peter Halley’s vibrant palette, referring perhaps to the simulacrum as a dialectical counterpoint to any implied transcendentalism. The left outer edge, with its subtle retinal interplay of lemon, white, and alternating pale blue and lilac strips, decenters the work even further. Here, it created a springboard for the eye to jump to its left-hand neighbor, Blatantly Transparent, painted on linen, whose flesh-colored impasto is framed by black and pale pink edges. The overall visual discordance was completed by Steel-lined History, on the far left, executed on wood mounted on—i.e., lined with—steel, and which consists of varying shades and textures of black, with obvious allusions to both Malevich and Ad Reinhardt (black on black).

Gilbert-Rolfe’s skill in forcing the eye to make narrative decisions—to enter a group of works, however reluctantly, from a given direction; to jump from one visual sign to another; to stop and explore the interior “landscape” or move on to more exterior conceptualizations—is a perfect gambit for his overall premise. We are, by turns, historicized and seduced, reassured and confused by a complex interplay of visual and historical signification. In this case, the pleasure of the text lies in one’s willingness to surrender to both spatial and intellectual insecurity.

Colin Gardner