Exhibition shows leaps in artistic logic

J.M. Sullivan
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'Peter Roberts, A Retrospective' on this weekend at Arts and Culture Centre

This retrospective shows examples of Peter Roberts' oil and acrylic paintings, watercolour studies, and even some of the postcards he painted or sketched and sent home from his travels to the Grand Canyon, Bermuda and England.

It also, as such a presentation is intended to do, shows the arc of development in his own progress as a visual artist.

Roberts, who died last year, aged 63, was a doctor with an impressive medical and administrative career, but his artmaking was constant, and consistently strengthening. His paintings show some interesting choices, and a growing assurance, expressed, largely, in an increasingly finer and simpler articulation.

Christopher Pratt calls "The South West Light (Belle Isle), 1985" Peter Roberts' breakthrough painting. - Submitted photo

This retrospective shows examples of Peter Roberts' oil and acrylic paintings, watercolour studies, and even some of the postcards he painted or sketched and sent home from his travels to the Grand Canyon, Bermuda and England.

It also, as such a presentation is intended to do, shows the arc of development in his own progress as a visual artist.

Roberts, who died last year, aged 63, was a doctor with an impressive medical and administrative career, but his artmaking was constant, and consistently strengthening. His paintings show some interesting choices, and a growing assurance, expressed, largely, in an increasingly finer and simpler articulation.

He was always attracted to vistas, the land - and seascapes around his home, first in St. Anthony, then in St. Philip's; to buildings; to ships. How he distilled these on the canvas gradually changed from a natural and realistic palette to one of more bold and primal colours, while the configuration was honed into elegant fundamentals.

Cliffs and water became undulating, pristine lines. Structures became angles and partial views. Some of the last pieces he did concentrate on single objects done in hot, almost bleached, tones.

"Thinking of Georgia" (Georgia O'Keefe), 1986, completed during an artist retreat to Monhegan Island, has a cross intersecting the foreground, its top slightly cropped, its arms stretched against a ball with a core of peach encircled with yellow and lime, underscored by scurries of lilac and turquoise. (O'Keefe was a big influence on Roberts, as was Rockwell Kent.)

In his journal, Roberts wrote about "the shape of things" and "eliminating things." He would create and recreate certain views, or leave and return to a single painting, many times in search of the right visual poise and colour. If a subject truly caught his eye, he tended to revisit it again and again.

Fisher's Head, in St. Anthony. The Bell Island lighthouse - he has even made collages of this, composed from a half dozen or more paintings. The St. James Anglican Church in Battle Harbour. Kelly's Island and Little Bell Island. Icebergs off St. Anthony.

He would wrestle with these - and he does write that this could be a struggle, and an uncomfortable one - until the arrangement came clear, and his intentions were fulfilled, or discovered. He might start to paint a boat, but realize he really wanted to capture the sky.

In "The South West Light (Belle Isle), 1985," which Christopher Pratt, in the Retrospective catalogue's foreword, calls a "breakthrough" painting, Roberts solved the compositional problem by lopping off the top of the lighthouse tower. It works.

Examples of these leaps in artistic logic and hunch can be found throughout the exhibition.

South West Light also shows a more formal, more contained play of colour, with the white of the lighthouse and the lower sky, and the blue shadows of the tower and clouds, warmed by exact, almost geometric planes of bright red on the two lower roofs, and these, in turns, are offset by a red oil tank and an outdoor lamp. This is crispness, this is balance. Roberts' focus, as he wrote, was becoming the light itself.

Roberts also liked to paint the huge tankers that sail Conception Bay. He often did them in pairs, as in "Untitled" (two tankers, sunset sky, Conception Bay), but one remarkable sequence of paintings shows a great red vessel as if in a series of manoeuvres as is she is tacking across the gallery wall, growing in size until the curve of her bow, edged with orange, fills much of the frame, while behind it a incandescent, almost ethereal schooner sails by.

"A ghost, really," Robert wrote, next to the "overwhelming oil boat," but it has a more tangible, if nonetheless lucent, presence than that. Not something fading and passing away, but something lightly, definitely there.

"Peter Roberts, A Retrospective," opens this evening with a reception from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the two upper galleries in the Arts and Culture Centre.

Aside from the work in private collection, many of the pieces are for sale. The exhibition continues Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Organizations: James Anglican Church

Geographic location: St. Anthony, Grand Canyon, Bermuda England Bell Island Monhegan Island Conception Bay Battle Harbour Belle Isle

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