San Francisco

Clare Rojas, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 48 × 64".

Clare Rojas, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 48 × 64".

Clare Rojas

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Clare Rojas, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 48 × 64".

In her recent exhibition “Caerulea,” Clare Rojas continued the investigation of abstraction she embarked on in 2011, in a departure from the work for which she is best known: whimsical paintings that, like the work of her San Francisco Mission School cohort, take up the aesthetics of sign-painting and street art, though often with a feminist twist. Purged of her signature folksy and fairy-tale-like imagery—stylized animal and matryoshka doll figures and boldly patterned borders and backgrounds derived from quilting and outsider or craft-based techniques—these new oil paintings on canvas (all Untitled, 2014) embrace the formally austere language of geometric abstraction, harkening back to the Russian Constructivist and De Stijl movements. Several are positively Proun-like in their spare distribution of shapes and colors over white grounds. Others are denser and grid-based, including a series of four related paintings that present chromatic and compositional permutations of a flattened field of diagonal and perpendicular forms: slight, barely audible variations on a melody. In the manner of her Constructivist forebears, Rojas revels in the faktura of the painted surface, leaving visible brushstrokes and traces of the handmade. Overall, however, the work is decidedly nongestural and unexpressionistic; the few curvilinear forms that do appear are sharp-edged and meticulously rendered—more Ellsworth Kelly than Joan Miró.

If Rojas’s turn to abstraction appears to be an about-face, there are continuities that complicate such a reading. The artist’s current paintings preserve the simple graphic compositions of her earlier work, and she has retained both her idiosyncratic tendency to taper shapes to pointed tips and her distinctive palette of saturated primary colors leavened with muted pinks, purples, and in one case, a delicate pale lavender. The importance of color here was signaled by the exhibition’s title: Caerulea (Latin for “blue”) is a hue that often evokes the unbounded freedom of ocean or sky. Yet there is something contained and almost airless about these paintings, as if the artist wanted to retreat from a world cluttered with meaning and emotion into some cool, blank realm of pure color and shape.

From the first exhibition of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square in Petrograd in 1915, abstraction has offered not only an escape from reality but also a way to see it anew—a utopian promise that has faded with repetition. Rojas’s decision to appropriate such forms a century later necessarily renders them assisted readymades (as Bob Nickas has designated contemporary abstraction more generally) that beg to be furnished with an updated historical context. In describing her transformation from a figurative to an abstract painter, Rojas has recounted a Buddhist parable in which a woman who is surrounded by vicious tigers stops to eat a delicious strawberry, choosing to savor the present moment instead of worrying about past or future suffering.

At a moment when the medium has been exhaustively ironized, interrogated, and mediated, the works in “Caerulea” seem blithely indifferent to painting’s ongoing existential crisis. It is worth considering whether this very insouciance—this refusal to engage in such self-reflexive questioning—might itself constitute a distinct strategy, with its own logic and historical specificity. The answer might have to do with the personal and political circumstances of the artist, with gender, with the art world. It might be cynical, naive, or even nihilistic. But it might also reveal something genuine about the conditions, or, to use Daniel Buren’s term, the “critical limits,” under which these paintings—indeed, all paintings—are produced, and under which they are exhibited, interpreted, bought, and sold, including not only the artist’s studio and gallery but these very pages and beyond. While the stakes of this strategy are not yet entirely clear, Rojas’s implicit invitation to consider these questions contributes to a critical exploration of the medium and the institutions that bolster it.

Gwen Allen