The Evocative Geometry of Painter Jason Rohlf
Now based in Brooklyn, the former Milwaukeean creates layered, painterly work that sticks in your mind.
When you enter the exhibit of the Jason Rohlf show, the first thing you see are the shop rags mounted on the north wall. These are normally used to clean up paint in a garage or painters’s studio but Rohlf has turned them into works of art. In fact, the entire series of nine painterly rags sold out before the show even opened at the Tory Folliard Gallery.
The shop rags provide a kind of key to Rohlf’s work, which has a feel of something that’s been painted multiple times and gets increasingly more complex and rich — but at the same time could be overlooked or thought irrelevant, much as we might dismiss the layers of paint built up on the surface of a palette or garage floor.
In his gallery talk on Saturday afternoon, the artist said these shop rags are like his sketchbooks, which have been painted again and again in Rohlf’s intuitive yet methodical way, helping him develop ideas and try out techniques.
The works on canvas are also constructed in a similar way. Rohlf builds up layers of paint, sometimes creating hard-edged lines by painting up to a taped-off section (and then removing the tape), and the creation becomes collage-like, though the effect is created only with paint. Rohlf calls them “urban palimpsests” — a palimpsest is a document where the writing has been erased and replaced with new writing — and his layering of paint has something of the same effect.
Rohlf says he works on several pieces at once, over a period of several months. When working he’s always up close to the painting. The only time he’s able to get a longer perspective is when he takes the work up on the roof and sees it from a distance. He works on the paintings from multiple directions, turning them and changing the orientation. He ultimately has to decide which end is up for an exhibition!
The paintings include basic geometric shapes — spheres, triangles, chevrons — but the multiple layers of colors and textures create a cohesion and a sense of movement. Geometry collides and intersects in his paintings. The long flat triangles found in some paintings are almost like petals of a flower.
This show is called “Navigational Aids,” and Rohlf once suggested there’s a sort of “fake science” to his imagery, which can call to mind constellations, maps and graphs. But are we being pulled in or pushed outward? Depending on how you view them, these works can suggest implosion or explosion.
There is also a second series of paintings in the show inspired by the birds Rohlf used to observe from his Third St. loft in Milwaukee. These share some of the same textural and formal attributes of the more abstract pieces but have an iconic, stencil-like quality in the repetition of the colorful birds balanced on a sometimes flag-filled line. They are poised subtly, sweetly between abstraction and figuration.
I like his work very much. The paintings embody many contradictions: they are gritty yet seductive, rough yet delicate, colorful yet never garish, celebratory but not simple-minded. Ultimately, Rohlf’s evocative constellations point in no particular direction, allowing the viewer plenty of space to finish the thought.
Jason Rohlf, “Navigational Aids,” Through December 26, Tory Folliard Gallery.