Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wing It: Roberta Harris - Essay


    
When Roberta Harris exhibits her art, I often think about the younger artists who will view it, most of whom were unborn or tiny snots at the time she
trained at Hunter College, Parsons, and in the Whitney Independent Study program. I’ve watched them assess her drawings and watercolors, oil and acrylic paintings, three dimensional wall hangings and sculptural works, the most monumental of which required structural engineering and a crane, and wondered if they understood the dedication and perseverance necessary to make purposeful art without deviation for fifty years.

Can these young hotshots appreciate how pivotal were the era and location of her training, to study and make studio art in New York in the late sixties and early seventies under the rafters of MOMA, the New York galleries and the Whitney?

We’ve often discussed the impact of those surroundings. The Whitney, from where her lordly friend Schnable followed his heart despite bitchy comments from some less visionary, offered Roberta exquisite opportunities. There she soaked in Twombly’s paintings, which she said seemed to “cast a pink glow, it felt like walking through air,” and there she examined Louise Nevelson’s memorable sculptural works constructed with sawed fragments and found objects, “she was a glorious woman, all about dedication to her craft, bold and audacious.” De Kooning made her feel “the romance of mark making, he caresses the brush.” From Rauschenberg, Roberta learned to continually innovate. “Vision! He would do something, and then do something different.” Lucas Samaras guided her to “good ingredients” and Joan Snyder taught her “to be gutsy.”

The repetition and gridding that informs Roberta’s art is a direct result of these influences. In New York she saw that repetitive patterning was orthodoxy, Warhol’s vampire-ry appropriation from Jasper Johns’ flag and letter grids being solely one example. “Agnes Martin was showing grid paintings at Betty Parson’s Gallery and she was brilliant, her work was meditative, calm, all about seeking peace.” From Pat Steir who designed grids and steps while contemplating both real and metaphysical realms, she “learned to paint grids, and also learned less is more.” Mondrian was at MOMA and her parents’ glass and mosaic art work filled her psyche.


Keep these significant artistic influences in mind when you view “Wing It: Selected Works by Roberta Harris,” Roberta’s current exhibition at Two Allen Center. Two Allen Center is located at 1200 Smith Street, and if like most of us geezers you navigate Downtown according to landmarks that have been there forever, you will find Two Allen Center directly across Smith Street from the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The exhibition’s Opening Reception is Wednesday June 7, 12:00-1:30 pm, and the exhibition can be seen through September 5, 2017, with viewing hours from 8 am-6 pm Monday through Friday.

“Wing It” refers to curatorial harnessing of the “bird” motif which is a primary iconographic element within Roberta’s oeuvre, for many years she has rendered birds in the form of drawing, painting, and in three dimensional. Among her mixed media works are striking canvases covered with collaged paper birds and sumptuously colored paint. Years back Roberta told me her birds allude to healing and regeneration, that in many cultures they emblemize inner journeys, prophecy, visions, and spiritual enlightenment. They also iterate the bridging of worlds, and past-life connections. “For me birds also represent freedom, happiness and fulfillment,” she said.

She spent time investigating the ancient Egyptian depictions of birds in hieroglyphs and temple carvings known as “Ka,” which translates to “spirit.” Ka arrived at birth and lived on after death, and stood for the creative and sustaining power of life. Her many depictions of birds in flight adhere to this ancient notion of a life force.

I can’t discount the haunting she suffered after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Budapest, which inflicted “a recurring thought about being inside a cramped boxcar, hurtling through the darkness, on my way to a death camp. Unaware of their destination, prisoners wrote their last words, and pushed these notes and letters through the train wall openings in hopes they would be found. Some of the letters mentioned that birds were never heard singing at the death camps, birds avoided the smell."

Though I can’t recall titles, I’ll never forget the first time I saw one of her enormous “bird” canvases. There was a Baroque quality to the painting’s size, colors, and textural variations from irregular paint application and collage elements. Near it was a delightfully perverse bird sculpture with naughty protrusions, an heir to many thousands of years of artistic activity. I knew back then that like Twombly’s graphite scribblings, the art is loaded with associations.

Here’s what I learned from a quick chat with Roberta:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: OK, we’ve done this before, so you know I don’t need long replies. How many works are you showing, and in which format - paintings, watercolors, sculptures?

Roberta Harris: The show has twenty-one artworks, there are four sculptures, including one of my sculptural chairs. I’m showing five works on paper, including two cutout images, and the rest are paintings.

VBA: Are the artworks new, or are you pulling from the past. Give me a sense of when the art was created.

RH: The works in the show date from 1995 to the present, but a few pieces are new and are being exhibited for the first time.

VBA: Describe your curatorial theme or program.

RH: Sally Reynolds curated the show and chose my birds and bird related imagery, which pleases me immensely because personally it is an important symbol, as you know, for its’ inherent sense of hope. Sally’s exhibition essay says that when we feel uncertain, we wing it (winged), we trust, and try to fly. For me this represents inspiration and hope in difficult times. This underlying theme is similar to the one for my 2009 Dallas museum show, when you wrote the catalogue essay. That show was inspired by my personal mission to lift viewers up, as if flying. I have the same goal here, perhaps more so, given life’s unfolding. If the art conveys hope, courage, I achieved my goal.

This stated philosophical underpinning remains consistent. Roberta believes there is energy in the universe that can be meditatively and intuitively tapped, while striving to achieve. Such a belief makes each artwork similar to a prayer.

I’ll end with a poem gallerist Betty Parsons wrote to Agnes Martin in the early sixties, told to Helene Aylon in her 1977 interview of Parsons: “May the leaves of yesterday not follow you, may the birds of the future guide you. And the voice of the wind inform you and the rays of the sun embrace you.”


Image: Roberta Harris, “Flight Time,” 2017, Oil, Acrylic and Mixed Media on canvas, 72” x 60”