Barbara Rossi

Of all the Chicago Imagists, Barbara Rossi has most consistently achieved an equipoise between a mania for technique and a commitment to iconography with profound spiritual implications. Since the late ’60s her work has constituted a deeply personal and rather hermetic quest for images achieving the state of grace that has traditionally been the highest and most noble aim of picture making. This midcareer retrospective of over 60 paintings, drawings, and mixed-media works was a call to conscience, reflecting everywhere Rossi’s effort to create a parallel universe mirroring the most fundamental aspirations of humankind.

It is line that drives Rossi’s art, and there are moments, particularly within her earlier pieces, that seem the work of a medieval Celtic illuminator loose on the streets of Chicago. Rossi’s line wends its way across her drawings and paintings in febrile and numbing accretion, and the furious tangle results in a flatness that is only modulated by her use of color. Her early abstracted heads, painstakingly painted on the reverse side of Plexiglas sheets, exhibit a scrupulous commitment to detail; bulbous and confrontational, they are incredibly varied in effect. Frequently, as in works such as 3-D Do, 1973, their surfaces are studded with thousands of small dots of acrylic paint,creating a pointillist effect that is hypnotic in its doggedness. Dot and line accrue to suggest a kind of pictorial Morse code that seems to obey its own logic, though it is, of course, the direct result of Rossi’s technique.

In the mid ’70s Rossi began to depict groups of her highly abstracted figures in complex spatial environments. Here, rhythmic and compositional echoes culled from sources such as Indian miniatures and Sienese painting are arranged with a delicacy of balance and control. Gestures find their counterparts and actions their resolutions in charged harmonies suggesting that pattern can function as a signage capable of reflecting the human condition. Inter- and extrapersonal relationships play themselves out in winsome scenarios that are not too determinate, at times achieving an aura similar to Fernand Léger’s late work. In Orange A.M., 1983, Rossi portrays a figure that balances the traditions of the Gupta figurine and the Western odalisque. Watched by an ostensibly male head at the left, this woman’s body writhes with a sensual abandon that is apparent despite the economy of anatomical detail. Rossi achieves an essence here, pictorialized in the bold pastel tones that link these compositions. Her recent work includes a number of tableaux that are surprisingly classical in flavor, with the labyrinthine complexities of her earlier work slowed into dramas that are more paced. Both bodies of work are linked by the belief that an entire cosmology can be inscribed within these objects.

James Yood