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EVA ROBERTS: FLOW AND FLOWER

For at least a decade Eva Roberts has employed painting techniques linking her to the burgeoning re-examination (especially but not exclusively in southern California) of the painterly methods that emerged in the middle of the last century out of abstract expressionism. This reconsideration of methods we associate most particularly with the “color-field” painters so prominent in the 1960s actually extends those methods, charging them with a formal and, notably in Roberts’ case, spiritual dynamic that was, if anything, suppressed in the original. Individual painters such as Morris Louis and Paul Jenkins capitalized on the effects of splash and seep, but today’s “flow” painters center their practice on those effects. For her part, Roberts not only centers her practice there, but strives with those effects to infer – indeed, to induce – a higher plane of perception.

Roberts realizes this goal by conjuring images at once entirely material – clearly, evidently, produced by the flow of pigment on an absorptive support – and highly suggestive, even metaphorical. She amplifies their resemblance to forms we associate with nature, forms the painterly applications themselves fall into quite – well, quite naturally. Plant blooms and stems, spiders’ webs and the carapaces of mollusks, roiling clouds and the meanders and turbid surfaces of rivers, all these suggestions and more readily elucidate themselves even to the resistant viewer. Roberts even hints at the human-made world, not least with elaborate, highly ordered lacings of drips that propose networks of roads in and surrounding cities. Indeed, certain paintings seem modeled on the view out an airliner window not long before a nighttime landing – especially if the nighttime sky is flecked with the signs of changing weather.

The color-field painters would have rejected such associations, and some of today’s “flow” painters are similarly disposed to insist on the purely visual effect, the retinal presence, of their paintings. Such painterly integrity was hard-won by the abstract artists of the 20th century, and artists are understandably loath to betray it. But when Frank Stella (echoing Matisse) insists that “what you see is what you see,” he ultimately cannot prevent us from seeing what isn’t actually there; he can only insist that we heed what is there. Roberts certainly concerns herself, and us, with what is there on and in her canvases; she composes and colors and fine-tunes and flows with care lavished first and foremost on the integrity of the painting, not the picture. At the same time, however, she allows us the all-too-human response of pattern recognition – not by surrendering the inherent drama and beauty of the non-objective compositions she produces, but by accepting our tendency to find the known world in her mysterious universe. In fact, this allows her work to gain metaphorical resonance, to suggest experiences as well as be them. In this condition – not of ambivalence, but simple bi-valence, a condition of being and seeming at the same time – Roberts’ practice harks back before abstract expressionism to the abstract painting of a century ago, a painting driven by and infused with spiritual and metaphorical content.

The soul of Eva Roberts’ paintings, then, is a twinned unity, proffering the yin of pure form and the yang of the recognizable. In this, Roberts sets the Zen koan on its head. Where the koan insists, “Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise,” Roberts insists that “things are also as they seem.”

Peter Frank
Los Angeles
August 2008
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