2.10 / Review

Selected Paintings and A Wall of Paintings

By Lea Feinstein January 23, 2011

Viva painting! George Lawson is a gallerist who loves paint—its tactility, gesture, color, application, and the relationship of painted marks to their ground. In a pair of shows by two consummate paint handlers, he gives painting its due. Stephan Fritsch’s ten small abstract works in acrylic are sparsely hung in the entry and first gallery. Roger Herman’s twenty-six small oil paintings are installed salon style in the second gallery. The two artists work very differently in subject, palette, and approach, but each demonstrates equal fluency in his exploration of the possibilities of paint. Their works are best appreciated in person, as reproduction flattens and averages both the color sonorities and the painterly textures.

Stephan Fritsch, a German who lives and works in Salzburg, Austria, is forty-nine, but his vibrant works are youthful. His color combinations are luminous, fresh, and surprising, even jarring. His compositions seem haphazard and uncontrived, almost “uncomposed.” He lays down paint in bold, scrubby strokes, layer over layer, playing transparency against opacity. Overlapping strokes run parallel or perpendicular to the length of the canvas, often digging back into previous layers. Fritsch’s touch is neither delicate nor dithering. He paints with big brushes, even on small-scale panels, slashing and slathering, his energetic strokes leaving brush tracks on the surface. The gesture of his arm is preserved, a visceral and visual record of the painter’s presence, as if he were there only moments ago.

In Get Back To (2009), he lays on a ground color—opaque bubblegum pink. (Think of the Venetian red that underlies most Renaissance panels.) Subsequent layers in white, gray, ochre, and transparent green-gray are brushed over preceding layers, each responding to that original pink, fragments of which show at the canvas’s edge or in an errant drip.

Do ask to have the German titles translated. Hell 3 (2006) is really Bright 3. Against a black ground, overlapping green passages are painted in increasing vibrancy, and they read spatially. In his paintings, Fritsch demonstrates color theory as clearly as Josef Albers did in his seminal Interaction of Color (1971), playing with the optical effects of paired complementaries, or colors close in value, or carefully scaled grays. His compositions are optical mixtures that, for all intents and purposes, take place within the eye and brain of the viewer. His works achieve extraordinary luminosity and spaciousness with modest means and, even at a small scale, hold the wall remarkably well.

Stephan Fritsch. Hell 3, 2006; acrylic on canvas; 16 x 12 in. Courtesy of George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco.

Roger Herman. untitled (mountain), 2010; oil on canvas; 24 x 20 in. Courtesy of George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco.

Fritsch’s website features large site-specific works, compilations of intentional and patchy gestures—almost accidental passages—on walls, floors, ceilings, and building facades. Fritsch “interrupts the program” to bring you an important message: wake up; pay attention. Things are not as they seem. This painted gesture is out of order and out of place, but supremely part of the whole.

On a densely hung wall in the rear gallery, Roger Herman’s small oils seem full of guile. While they lack the luminous quality of Fritsch’s work, they display bravura in handling paint. Where Fritsch’s works are without subject, except for the paint, Herman’s works depict figures, flowers, and architecture; yet the main story here is the paint itself. A long-time teacher of painting at UCLA, Herman moved to the United States from Germany in the 1980s. His technique of paint application, use of color, and subject matter link him to Expressionist predecessors. To begin a painting, Herman delves into his trove of clippings, postcards, magazine photos of porn, kitsch, contemporary architecture, and old master paintings to find an image that engages him. His visual appetite is polymorphously perverse; anything can turn him on—couples dancing, brothel scenes, floral arrangements, parking structures, cathedrals, a singular mountain.

Herman paints with a loaded brush and wields the supple tip, drawing and painting at the same time, outlining his forms and then dissolving them in loose puddles of strokes. In untitled (castle) (2010), an angled ridge signals the red gabled roof of a medieval structure. Moving from “description” down the walls of the cathedral, Herman’s strokes dissolve into scumbled passages of brown, revealing the weave of the canvas, and pool into eddies of yellow green strokes. Description dissolves into pure paint. This back and forth happens over and over in his work. Untitled (coronado) (2010) and untitled (mountain) (2010) are rendered in high-key bursts of short strokes, light and color simultaneously creating and shattering a cheek and a mountain’s face. There are elements of Nolde in Herman’s flattened landscapes, of Munch in the numerous renditions of dancing couples, of Richter in the kitschy water mill. Rich color marks his trio of skull paintings, which, in their way, are as lascivious as the female nudes with splayed legs and upended buttocks. The works are aggressively conceived and tenderly painted at the same time. Herman also paints and repaints the same subject, as in the black-and-white duo small tulip 1 (black and white) and small tulip 2 (black and white), both from 2006. He reworks the composition, repositioning the tangled mass of flower and stem forms, and zooms in to fill the frame with a closeup.

The works of Fritsch and Herman are tactile examples of painterly thinking-out-loud, from painters who relish the feel of paint on the brush. Characterized by unmediated directness, both artists’ works seem unlabored and immediate. In these works, we feel we are witnessing painters’ moment-by-moment decisions: revealed not concealed. 

 

 

Selected Paintings and A Wall of Paintings are on view at George Lawson Gallery, in San Francisco, through February 5, 2011.

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