Charlie Roberts, Back Bridge, 2013, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 67".

Charlie Roberts, Back Bridge, 2013, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 67".

Charlie Roberts

David Risley Gallery

Charlie Roberts, Back Bridge, 2013, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 67".

Charlie Roberts may be a native of Kansas who studied in Vancouver and lives in Oslo, but his work makes me think more of Leipzig than of anywhere else. Maybe that’s just to say that his art thrives not on his heritage, education, or context but on inherently unpredictable factors of imagination and energy. In any case, his bluntly stylized figuration suggests an affinity with Christoph Ruckhäberle and the artists associated with Lubok Verlag, and indeed Roberts’s work shows a similar fascination with folk art and popular graphics.

Sharing the exhibition’s title, “Sporty Girls,” was a series of five large paintings, each depicting a woman who seems to be a seriously multitasking athlete. One, for instance, is ready not just for a baseball game but to play every position at once: Wielding a bat with one hand, she wears a glove on the other (Di Maggio, all works 2013). Another woman, not content to carry a hockey stick while skateboarding, also rolls a random ball with her free foot (Stick Skater). Just as there can be nonsense poetry, this is a species of nonsense painting. Although highly stylized, it is not abstract; while citing familiar elements of everyday life, it elides any connection with reality. Instead, these paintings construct a self-contained (if not self-consistent) imaginary world that comes to an end at the edges of the canvas: a world of bright colors and insouciantly coiled lines describing schematic, ornamental bodies without depth. This art is “sporty” in the sense that it is committed to pure play without consequence in the world off the field (off the canvas). And that’s refreshing at a time when most art strains so mightily (and often so vainly) for significance—when it is always supposed to be interrogating something or at least establishing its own radicality. Roberts, by contrast, can rightly say, “Sporty Girl, c’est moi”; he’s willing to do something that’s at once cheerfully contentless and blithely self-contradictory. And he’s quite happy to do too much of it at the same time.

Of course, it’s also true that when you do too many things at once, you’re not likely to do them equally well. I was not as drawn to Roberts’s painted sculptures of roughly hewn wood as I was to his paintings. In contrast to his smooth, elegant handling of paint—which allows him to subtly echo Alex Katz or even Henri Matisse without falling on his face—the coarse surfaces of the sculptures insistently draw one’s attention back to the effort involved in making them. The works insistently refer, therefore, to the real world, but without being able to make enough of this connection to reality. There are exceptions, however: Big Balls, a group of colorfully patterned spheres piled up in the middle of the floor amid the big paintings, played on the same idea of the ball but used it less as an image than as merely a three-dimensional support for painted color, so that this piece became a side venture into abstraction. And so in a sense, this “sculpture” had more in common with the series “untitled, spray drawings,” consisting of a grid of thirty-six vivaciously patterned paintings on paper that were on view in an adjacent room than, say, with Cat Woman, a lumpy figure of a nude woman holding a cat that was displayed in a window. It is in the beauty of pure energetic expenditure that this work finds its promesse de bonheur.

Barry Schwabsky