Artist pays ‘Homage’ to the subject and the viewer

Joan Sullivan
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James Rosen works at The Leyton Gallery in St. John’s

An untitled work by James Rosen, whose retrospective, An Homage to the Capable Observer, continues at The Leyton Gallery of Fine Art until April 2.

This retrospective follows a significant exhibition in America at the St. Louis University, where the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) featured “James Rosen and the Capable Observer” (Sept. 26 - Dec. 12, 2010). This encompassed 67 works including small charcoal drawings, abstracts and large “homage” paintings from throughout Rosen’s six-decade career.

 “An Homage to the Capable Observer” is by necessity smaller, but still includes a range of studies, portraits, and series of “homages” in watercolour and oil on paper and canvas. The “homages” often start as classic or Renaissance paintings, and are then layered with wax emulsion.

Rosen, who was born in Detroit in 1933 but now lives in St. John’s, has long been fascinated by this characteristic process of taking works — in the case of the MOCRA show, often of religious scenes of the crucifixion, or the Virgin Mary — and coating them with emulsion.

The resulting paintings are, therefore, not about colour, as paintings usually are, but instead concentrate on qualities that critics have described as “whispers,” “ghosts,” and “shadows.” This patina also seems to speak of aging, not just of the artwork, but also of the eyes, as sight ebbs, becomes clouded, and subject to tricks. Rosen calls these layers “veils,” and may apply as many as 60.

“Homage” means a term of respect, or observance. One example is Rosen’s “Homage to Walt Kuhn,” which contains a couple of pieces. Kuhn (1877-1949) was an American painter best known for helping to organizing the landmark Armory Show in 1913, but he was also an American Modernist noted for his portraits of circus and vaudeville performers.

Rosen’s “Homage” cycle shows an athletic male figure, in a vintage uniform, leaning forward, his elbows on his thighs (the pose is not exactly replicated piece to piece).

The colours are fogged, submerged, with reds and whites making a subtle way to the surface.

One study shows the head, helmet, face, and especially eyes in striking effect, graphed in what seems quick, sure, spare lines.

With these and other pieces, Rosen also turns the term “homage” outward, making the work an homage to the viewer, who approaches with attention, and patience. Strict representation is not the goal, but contemplation, which takes time.

There are bigger pastorals, like “Towards Trepassey,” or “Swimming Towards the Light, Augusta Canal,” and several small works of trees and groves, which are both precise and almost conceptual at the same time, recognition rendered in quick blurs.

There are a half-dozen or so portraits of women (two whispering girls, a red-haired young woman in a chic sheath dress).

These are done with lots of the most delicate graphite lines, and with only small areas, say a face or hairstyle, painted, while the rest, such as the details of dress or shoes, are left in fine pencil.

The drawing skill is evident in the incredible balance of form and lines, which guides the eye just here, just there. The tones are very muted, even the bold oranges and dark greys.

There are some really beautiful still lifes, which are almost figurative —arrangements of peppers or fruit, largely pears in a bowl, done in graphite, pen and ink.

Sometimes there are brown lines on a white painted area, other times just the touch of a pencil, in red and black, with just one or two extra lines for shading.

These are elegant and full of finesse and volume, and every mark more than tells. They are almost geometric, or architectural, with their interplay of planes both organic and mathematical, and in their sense of measurement and construction.

Their exactness, combined with their almost not-there-ness, is enticing.

“An Homage to the Capable Observer” opened March 12 at The Leyton Gallery of Fine Art, and continues until April 2.

Organizations: Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis University

Geographic location: America, Detroit, Trepassey

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