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Vol. 12, No. 2, 2013
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the art of



Betsy Chunko holds graduate degrees in both art history and literature. She earned her PhD from the University of Virginia and currently teaches at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

As stated by artist Roberto Romei Rotondo, “A good deal has been written up on [me], much of it trash.” Genius is, they say, volatile. Widely exhibited, the artist was born in Milan and studied in Montreal under Guido Molinari. Yet the effects of the teacher on the pupil seem remarkably subtle. Instead, much of Rotondo’s work appears a reinterpretation of a longer, broader history of art -- often incorporated or recollected only to be overturned, challenged, or subverted, perhaps unconsciously.

The artist’s portraits have garnered a great deal of attention -- particularly his eerie gallery of haunting, ‘woeful’ women. Yet his abstract, non-figural work is perhaps the more striking in certain regards, particularly the remarkable Meltdown Series. Modern art implies ‘insider knowledge’ and history; this is one reason it can be difficult. Difficulty is actually a theme; so it is for Rotondo. These paintings are striking, but visually challenging, even unsettling works, demanding a kind of introspection from the viewer. To this end, we might consider Kandinsky’s assertion that “Abstract art is concrete.” In other words, it acknowledges its own terms and materiality, and privileges these over ease of viewing.

Works in the Meltdown Series resemble colour block paintings, but they are distinctly unlike Rothko’s works, for instance. Rather than rendering these oil paintings pure abstraction, we might call them landscapes. At 36 x 40 inches, they’re large, but not overwhelmingly so. They won’t occupy your entire field of vision, so there is no danger -- or invitation -- to fall into the work itself like a meditative space (or trap).

As the title implies, these seem to melt, but it’s more than that. As in the case of And Stillness Motion, their colours also bleed -- upwards and down, as if each of the colour fields has its own gravity. Perhaps this is because the artist considers them a visual response to the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, a statement on the post-industrial tension between life and environment and the threat posed by technology. Intended as ethical commentaries, these works nonetheless do symbolize somehow thought’s dictation in the absence of all control exercised by reason -- unbounded and outside aesthetic and moral preoccupations. Sometimes the name of a painting will encourage a certain response, as with Astral Sunrise -- but often not. And so, in looking, you feel your way through the experience of vision.

There’s more than moral commentary at work, though. Each is unique and like a Rorschach test intended to test the subject’s perceptions; they encourage individual viewers to see different things. Works like Grounded seem to operate like dreamscapes -- indeterminate spaces for a conflicting moiety of thought. Perhaps that’s the point -- these are paintings that ask you to wander through the largely unknowable parts of the self that lie behind or beneath the everyday self -- the self that goes to the grocery store and casts your vote in elections. Sometimes vague threatening shapes, like storm clouds, seem to hover at the edges of your perception in staring at a given ‘landscape’ in the Meltdown Series -- as with Core Melt, with its tornado-like swirl, either approaching or receding from a distance. These do double duty, recalling both the literal environment and the landscape of the mind -- i.e., the base and animalistic self that lies dormant but lurking in the heart of man. Such paintings, that is, seem to challenge the viewer to consider the Other at the heart of the self.

The Meltdown Series can be considered alongside the artist’s other recent works, which seem put together in the spirit of Hans Hoffman. Indeed, there’s a lot of Hoffman in the newer works; Rotondo’s Rad 6 seems to draw from the same tradition as Mirage [1946]. To Hoffman, creation was not a reproduction of an observed fact -- it was about empathy, plastic interpretation, vision, expression. He felt, moreover, that painting, especially abstract painting, is regulated by certain laws that can be mastered only by intuition during the act of creation. On plasticity in particular, he argued, “A work of art is ‘plastic’ when its pictorial message is integrated with the picture plane and when nature is embodied in terms of the qualities of the expressive medium.”

Rotondo’s work certainly seems to set itself on similar principles; yet far from derivative, these paintings seem, like the Meltdown Series, to challenge the viewer to consider many facets of the self. Often, this is manifest in strikingly novel ways. For instance, AX 10, relatively small at 24 x 24 inches, seems particularly bent on recalling aspects of the physical body.

Like a representation in paint of animal or human organs taken out and laid on a flat surface together, there is something gory about it, abstract though it is. The painting is almost too physical somehow and is frightening for being so.

Other recent works look like reimagined still-lives. They approach figural representation, but tenuously, as if content to reside within the chasm between abstraction and iconography -- loath to get too close to either one. To this end, works like Rad 4 are almost mechanical, paintings of composite parts superimposed on indeterminate backgrounds. Similarly, a work like Going Over appears, in particular, to draw obliquely from Picasso’s Cubism and its interlocked, vertical climbing forms. But beyond this, it captures the spirit of Arshile Gorky, at his best in the later years, and certain works by Helen Frankenthaler.

What’s so good about so much of Rotondo’s work is the way in which it bridges aspects of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century Masters with refreshingly new ingenuity. Indeed, his works do interesting things with the history of art. The artist knows what this history looks like. He knows Cubism, just like he knows twentieth-century Abstraction. He also clearly learned a lot from the landscapes of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. A work like Slow Dusk seems to capture certain aspects of the same existential crises inhered in and seeping through their pigments, with a similar aesthetic of beautiful but haunting tonality -- blues and greens and the hint of sunlight dying or already dead in the sky.

But always Rotondo is subtly rejecting those earlier styles, as well as their audiences to some extent.

The viewer will see all manner of influences and these will shift, change and rearrange the longer one looks. These works redetermine themselves, have their own desires, which the viewer can activate with his or her presence but cannot necessarily overcome. As such, the paintings have input. We are here to watch them -- a fact which indeed distinguishes his works from those of Pollock or Newman, for instance. That they seem to represent, sometimes, environmental or psychic ‘meltdown’ or the like is, ultimately, but an involuntary projection of the viewer’s own emotional state.

All paintings © Roberto Romei Rotondo

by Betsy L. Chunko:
Unveiled (book review)
Trial by Ink (book review)
Plastics, Toxicity & Health


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My body is numb and my brain is plastic like the meltdown that soothes the skin of revival to energized nuclear spins of mankind. Gregariously glued to somber hues. Thank you Roberto Rotondo.
Love the paintings. Somehow the last one strikes me most. I guess that's just the traditonalist in me. Reminds me of being lakeside, in Northern Quebec. Beautiful. Mike de Souza






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