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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 3, No. 2, 2004

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the art of



When painting ranks as the supreme value it has no concern with, and no place in, a social order that, itself, lacks any supreme value. André Malraux. The Voices of Silence.


The series entitled The Roamers, by Italian-born, Montreal-bred, Roberto Romei Rotondo, is a remarkable achievement because it challenges our preconceived notions of modern art while revitalizing an art form that has long since fallen off the critic’s radar screen. I’m persuaded that the series, completed in 2003, will emerge not only as the artist’s greatest work, but will come to be viewed as a significant creation because there is no where for that kind of 3C (color, canvas, and concept) painting to go. As a modern art that does the past proud, The Roamers, which exists separate from the ‘isms’ that legislate rank and relevance, discloses a realm where figuration is subsumed by abstraction, but never disappears in it. By dispensing with the conventional foreground-background dynamic, The Roamers satisfies the conditions of both figurative and abstract art and demonstrates their easy co-existence. That there is nothing new in this is to miss the point; the artist is neither an innovator nor obsessed with notoriety. “I don’t require a hardware store or plumber’s kit for the materials of my art,” he declaims.

Rotondo describes himself as an admirer of de Stael (1914-55) for whom pure art is incompatible with any conceptual and/or didactic design, the movement towards which culminates in the art of Rothko and Newman. If Cezanne’s revolutionary art was motivated by his fear of pictorial depth disappearing forever, Rotondo, perhaps fearing for the life of ideas in painting, turns de Stael into a radical point of departure and evolves, through the introduction of deliberately open-ended, receding subject matter, a conceptual art that is metaphysical in reach, where the meaning of a work, or the series, runs parallel to the viewer’s interrogation of his own life. At the same time, at the bidding of the viewer, each work in the series can be appreciated for its decorative, non-conceptual, surface properties. Through an unlikely marriage of highly refined Renaissance brush work and Expressionism, the artist’s layered approach to color and rigorous application of abstract principles of composition combine to produce two new aesthetics: of civility and silence, idioms which, prior to Rotondo, were only partially disclosed, but following the precedent of Mondrian, whose exemplary compositional formulations have not been surpassed, adhere to the laws of balance that govern color, tone/light and volume.

If it is the unstated ambition of every painter to produce a body of work that will not only satisfy the conditions of great art but resonate for all times, he will do so by responding to the significant concerns of his time in such a way that future generations viewing his work, will be taught to respond to their own. The Roamers is a candidate for such an art because -- pacing American literary critic Robert Trilling -- it competes with the ideas of philosophy and illuminates the realm of philosophical enquiry like no other art in the history of contemporary art; and may prove equal to the ideas of the great religious paintings and statuary that emerged under Christianity.

The Caves - II © Roberto Romei Rotondo The Caves  - V © Roberto Romei RotondoWe first meet the prototype of The Roamers in a series of unpublished notebook size monochromatic oil sketches on paper, (2001) called The Caves, which foretell the color, contours, and conceptual themes The Roamers will bring to completion 3 years later. In many of these sketches the protagonists have not so much withdrawn from the daily grind but have refashioned it to facilitate the contemplative life. At first glance, we encounter, without fanfare, unremarkable gatherings of people who are imprecisely engaged with one another. In the tradition of Van Gogh’s feel for architecture, (the Church at Auvers), a straight line is not to be found, while the settings, albeit far removed from modernity, are neither mythical nor idealized. But when we allow the eye the time required to meet the work half way, we discover that the first effect of the diaphanous quality of the sketches is to mysteriously render unfamiliar that which we would normally regard as understood, and that what animates these quaint gatherings is not mere conversation (chatter) but dialogue of the highest order, the recognition of which becomes both the delight and device of The Roamers.

Before Rotondo turned to painting, he was immersed in the study of philosophy: Heidegger, Nietzche and the Pre-Socratics. Well before bin Laden turned the cave into a sound-byte zone, and well after man’s first essays at primitive art in the caves of Lescaux, Plato’s cave allegory was the most discussed cave in history and was the site where philosophical discourse was formalized as a dialectic. Which is to say, Rotondo’s choice of the cave and variations as the setting for his sketches and later work is hardly an accident.

La Sera ©  Roberto Romei RotondoThe seductive qualities of The Roamers cannot be separated from their philosophical underpinnings. If his work -- most of which features informal gatherings of people -- doesn’t reveal its meaning at first glance, the idea of the philosopher kings prevails throughout, and like a friendly breeze imbues his work with a lyricism that is tantamount to the artist’s signature.Pellegrini © Roberto Rotondo Set against the tempest winds of modernity that provide one rush after another but no meaningful direction, The Roamers introduces the notion that there exists a significant connection between authenticity and serenity, the deficit and syntax to be supplied by the viewer. Which leads us to the maker’s uncompromising pallet where paint and meaning are masterfully mixed and singularized, a feat that speaks to an artist in complete control of his art and vision, for whom painting is the site where he reveals his care and concern for the destiny of the world. Unlike abstract artists, Rotondo refuses to leave the content of art to the caprice of the beholder, and he categorically rejects the view that art no longer require a consensus to be significant art. The Roamers is first and foremost a conceptual art whose agenda is formalized through its painterly qualities and compositional rigor, where volume and content are arranged to throw, not into sharp, but gradual relief the idea that in our rush to modernity we have lost something vital, an essential part of ourselves; and as the viewer struggles to uncover the implications, he is introduced to his own spiritual indices.

Forestieri  © by Roberto Romei RotondoRotondo’s narratives unfold in earthy-warm, primitive settings, where elongated, heaven-wreathed, wraithlike characters gather and engage in civilized, elevated discourse, to the effect that without knowing why, we want to be there with them, in their most intimate community, as if being-there would fill a void his art insists we take notice of. The relative smallness of his characters set against the immensity of nature is not a contrived humility, but a proportionate response to the human condition marked by suffering and loss, events to which the tormented creator of The Roamers is no stranger.Asceti  © by Roberto Romei Rotondo

Despite the cynicism that characterizes modern art in both its content and execution, The Roamers is an optimistic work, and is the answer to Munch (Scream) and especially the art that culminates in minimalism. The artist has laid bare a vision of man, very much of the earth, of the soil, that invites us to undertake a journey -- the title of an earlier series -- the purpose of which is what we make of it, even though it is impossible not to notice that in many of The Roamers the characters are illuminated by the Christian halo and its pre-ordained significations. My first thought was do we have to be told that the artist’s work is underwritten by his genuine spiritual concerns? After all, aren’t his sublime personages already somewhere between man and God, already dwelling in the exalted terracotta of an alternative world? If it is no secret that the painter is a devoted By The Brook © Roberto Romei RotondoCatholic, whose life has been informed by the Bible (especially those injunctions that encourage the partaking of wine), it should be said that I’m a secularist, drawn toward the all-inclusive, non-denominational temperament of his work. Which means, as a responsible critic, it is my duty to declare my own biases and refrain from imposing them on a body of art whose intentional thrust clashes with my own. If I disingenuously insinuate my world view onto The Roamers, I become party to a position that betrays their spirit: a witting cheerleader or acolyte of modernity for whom secularism is merely another alibi for another kind of intolerance. For the record, and for the millions of traditionalists world-wide and the churches that attend to their spiritual needs, Rotondo’s halo-charged work will surely find a home, just as the form and hues of his halos are integral to both the concept and composition of his work.

In The Woods ©Roberto RotondoIf what finally distinguishes significant art is its ability to turn the viewer into an accomplice, Rotondo’s The Roamers answers every challenge and already stands as a formidable rampart against what has yet to be properly identified as the crisis in modern art. Whether or not the next cycle of painting rises to the occasion of offering a correction to the art -- or what has been passed off as art -- of the past 50 years, just might depend on the reception of and precedent set by The Roamers, and in general, the artist taking responsibility for the unceasing line that charts the ups and downs, the rises and crises in the history of art.


All works © Roberto Romei Rotondo

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