Abstract Appraisal

‘Survey’ at Gallery 1516 lends Roots’ art a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’


Exploring the 25-year career of Omaha-based artist Larry Roots, as seen in his solo exhibition, A Survey, at Gallery 1516, reveals a steady curiosity in mark making, a heap of studied influences and “pension for learning”.

The exhibition catalogue proclaims Roots’ approach to be, “multilayered, courageous and unique.” Despite the hyperbole, the artist more humbly speaks about his oeuvre of abstraction as having, “the promise of something else.”

He goes on to state that A Survey “exemplifies earlier work which influence (and contrasts) recent work, 2015-16.” The result is a certain je ne sais quoi, which continues throughout as a prod to contemplate the artist’s first solo exhibition at Gallery 1516 on view through Jan. 22, 2017.

Roots worked in tandem with curator Sarah Kraft and his son Logan to organize the 2D and 3D pieces on display. They selected 54 paintings and sculptures from a total collection ranging upwards of 2400 artworks. The former rental car depot turned gallery is broken into “rooms” with selected paintings and sculptures organized by style and overarching tendencies.

The potentially distracting, temporary mesh scrims at Gallery 1516 act as “walls” to these rooms. Activated in a thoughtful way, viewers can see through the mesh into the adjacent room. This Secret Garden approach to exhibition design is quite possibly, the moment of curiosity—connecting artist, object and larger whole—anticipating what’s next while focusing on the immediate.

Directly entering the voluminous gallery, one’s breath is taken away with Roots’ “Gridlock”—a large 60 x 60 inch colorful canvas. Painted in 2016, tiny marks collide against a geometric quilt in tones of clay, violet, painters tape blue, magenta and their subtle varieties in an all over approach.

This abstract world of choppy organization is, as the title alludes, a momentary stop in a career in hyper drive—setting the tone (and promise) for other works to come.

Entering room one, a seemingly somber set of black and white paintings float. Feeling like the tipsy moment right before falling asleep, celestial thoughts pop in and out. This room crashes labored works with gestural marks.

Some works such as “Opus No. 3” from 2002 and “Remains” from 2013 sparkle as bejeweled sweaters purchased at an octogenarian’s estate sale. While others like “Circus Series: Acrobatics” are a wash of Robert Motherwell-esque marks. It’s the least concise room, but as the amuse bouche for the survey, that may be the point.

Room two tells another story. Refinement reigns supreme with geometric nods to Sol Lewitt, Sean Scully, in cool color choices. Roots hits his stride in this room. Suggesting literal and metaphorical building blocks for other works, the viewer is reminded of “Gridlock” at the entrance with a plethora of other gridded work hanging from the mesh scrims.

Within this motif, Roots’ breadth of material is showcased. Ranging from acrylic on canvas, to acrylic on wood coated with a clear epoxy, as seen in “Categories”, to a uniquely finished aluminum and acrylic on mounted fabric as seen in “Code”.

“Code” is by far the most appealing object in this room with its minimal colors, an almost Agnes Martin approach to micro detailing and astute yet fleeting geometry. Each title card in this room, as with others, reveals a voyeuristic view into Roots’ methodology—further giving clues to “something else” at work.  

Room three is the antithesis to room two. Agnes Martin is switched out for Joan Miro; subtleness for aggressiveness; seriousness to comedy; geometry for gesture. The comic relief from “She’s a Scream”, which is 40 x 30 inch acrylic on panel painting of a, as I’m sure you can guess, woman screaming, appears to come out of left field in relation to the other works seen in room one and two.

Her smoky eyes and stained cranberry lips are creepily intriguing. Adjacent to the sculpture “Life of the Patty,” viewers get a sense that Roots, although serious, has a sense of humor. Humor resides in other works like “Some Kinds of Wonderful” which, although challenging for grammar queens, is a hodge-podge canvas of an ever-growing pallet of motifs.

A figural face sits at the bottom right gazing up at a geometric pattern, colorful windmill and abstract marks. This room card catalogues Roots’ art, which begins to combine themes and styles within the same artwork.

Upon entering room four, the hard geometry of Roots’ work dissolves almost completely. Exactness floats away with the tide of change. In this room we encounter a collage of colors and references. Taking cues from what I assume could be Paul Klee and Richard Diebenkorn, images in this room are views into a fractured (almost gridlocked) scape.

Sandy works such as “Turning Points” and “The Deep End” take on the aesthetic of aerial views from Google Earth. Encampments for “something else”, these works break down even the most simplistic geometries to less exact washes in tones of mocha, dirty white and mauve.

Whimsy is pulled into this room as well. A cubist clock painting titled “Tic Tok” might also hold references to the artists taste in pop music, especially Ke$ha, as the title suggests. This room dances, as her music indicates, to a party atmosphere. While maybe a bit reaching, this idea that Roots is listening to Ke$ha while painting is part of the joy of this room and exhibition—emphasizing the unexplainable qualities of his work.

Roots, who has been working as a full-time studio artist since 1991, makes art that is aggressively contemporary. He clearly is studying contemporary making, and this may include music—especially in considering the many lyrical works (and titles) in this room and the room to come.

As the final room in the exhibition, room five is a trick-or-treaters delight. As a period to the survey, there is pleasure in the conflation of everything leading up to this point. Subtle marks are peppered with aggressive colors. Gestures are nestled next to a geometric garden.

The dominant work, “Flight Pattern” is a large 48 x 96 inch canvas. Filled with Roots intense sense of color, a tangerine square dominates in a sea of grape Jolly Rancher purple and sky blue. In the center of the work are thirteen painted pre-folded origami envelopes. The Grammy nominated song “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange sings in my head.

Scattered throughout the rooms and center trough are Roots’ sculptures. Some fly in like the sails on a boat, while others stand erect cast in bronze. It is clear from this vista that Roots has created strategies for viewing his worlds. These vestibules are sanctuaries where Roots roots into the histories of mark making, color and his own sense of drama.

Overall his Survey is significant, but it might have benefitted from a curatorial edit in two ways. First, sometimes less is more; A Survey risks overwhelming even the most astute viewer. Secondly, in emphasizing, per the catalogue, “continuities” between each piece and “a framework to understand his work as a whole” this whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts organizational method can break down to abrupt generalities.

With Roots’ continued re-evaluation of his own work, marks and references, it may have been a more interesting curatorial choice to find new tendencies in his art through a less than standard method of arrangement. In A Survey’s more traditional arrangement, the vibrancy of individual works are at times overshadowed not only by sheer numbers but by being placed next to work that is nearly identical.

Further, A Survey as a title may be a dramatic epitaph, but Roots himself is much more pragmatic and concise than the catalogue and exhibition allude to. HIs work, much like others, can easily be described in obtuse, hyperbolic artspeak, something curators…and critics alike risk, myself included…but this diminishes the power of his, and probably all, art.

Best advice then: enjoy each work on its own terms in Roots’ clear, precise and evolving style of abstraction.  Pat Drickey, founder of Gallery 1516, put it more succinctly by saying,  “Larry is one of the best.”

One of the “best” perhaps at making his mark in abstract terms that is both personal and engaging. As Roots himself describes it, “Each work tells a story, recalls a memory, or is a mystery that requires/allows the viewer to complete it.”

At the end of the day, these paintings and sculptures are solely referential marks; marks that when applied through the artists studied and steadfast hand, create, with a certain je ne sais quoi, worlds beyond words; rooms beyond rooms.

Larry Roots: A Survey is on view through January 22, 2017 at Gallery 1516 located at 16th Street and Leavenworth Street, Omaha. More at gallery1516.org.


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