deborah roberts

Back to an Art Exhibit at Last

Ah – the delight! Finally, my husband and I got to see an art exhibit in person for the first time since before Covid. 

We had scheduled ourselves to see it a month earlier on our wedding anniversary, but we had a huge snowstorm here in Austin, Texas, that sent us reeling with frigid temperatures, extended power and water outages plus communication system breakdowns. So, our long-awaited foray back into the world of art museums was further delayed. 

And, of course, social distancing means that the number of people admitted to museum shows is restricted. The duration of visits is limited to an hour. Fortunately, an hour was sufficient to fully take in the show we went to. 

We saw two exhibits at The Contemporary Austin. One was photography by Torbjørn Rødland and the other was a two-dimensional mixed-media show of works by Deborah Roberts. 

I had seen examples of both these artists’ work before, but neither in person before. 

In my upcoming book, The Magic of Modern Art: How to Love It, I quote a variety of artists and art professionals regarding the way they approach and experience Modern Art. They describe their visceral responses as well as their thought processes both in appreciating and assessing Modern Art. 

So, I thought I’d do an “in-the-field” example of my thoughts and experience of these two shows of contemporary artwork. 

Torbjorn Rodland

I’ll start with Torbjorn Rodland’s photography exhibit. First I noticed that most of his works weren’t very large. I didn’t measure or read the dimensions, but they were mostly rectangles that I estimate were around two to three feet on each side. I had the thought that, in this era of “bigger and more spectacular is better,” it was refreshing to see works of a rather unassuming scale. 

In addition to a few large photos spread out on walls, there was one large wall that was hung with his photographs salon-style (in rows). I found it difficult to focus on one piece at a time. I think that detracted from the power of that portion of the exhibition. 

The works themselves were nice. They reminded me of commercial and fashion photography in style and composition, but the subjects certainly were not those of commercial photos. 

Here’s the thing. I have had my socks knocked off at most of the exhibits I’ve seen at the Contemporary Austin. I kept waiting for that to happen with Rodland’s photography but it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t have any sizzle or surprises for me. I had no noticeable visceral reaction to it. 

Several of the art professionals I interviewed for the book said that one of their main criteria successful art is mastery of materials. This show demonstrated mastery of materials. I appreciated that as I perused the works. Mastery of the medium of photography is no small accomplishment! 

As I was writing this, I stopped to read the blurb about this photography on Contemporary Austin’s website — Torbjørn Rødland: Bible Eye  This essay, forgive me, reminds me why I tend to avoid reading such things. Many artists and art professionals feel otherwise and love to absorb all the rhetoric. But I often find it overly analytical.

To me, such writing makes art that’s pretty straightforward (like Mr. Rodland’s photography) sound exceedingly complex. Of course, I may be missing something in my assessment. Also, in some cases, it’s clear to me that the writing is completely consistent with the art. In this case, I’m especially glad I saw the show before reading the blurb. 

Deborah Roberts

As for the Deborah Roberts exhibition, I found it juicy. It hit me in the gut. Ms. Roberts’ stark compositions of figures against a black or white background are similar to some of my own work, so I resonated with them like a flute with a piccolo. I also enjoyed the scale of her works, which were about five feet tall with various widths. 

Ms. Roberts’ treatment of the figures is distinctly her own. Her choices of distortions lend themselves beautifully to the subject matter —young African-American lives. I find Ms. Roberts’ pieces to be raw, bold and elegant while having a casual feel at the same time. 

There was one piece, which I’m displaying with this post, which is a very simple print on paper that reads “We ≧ They.” When I first saw it, it struck me as being too explanatory and obvious. However, since the time since I saw the exhibit, that piece stuck with me. Every time I think of the exhibit, that image crops up in my mind’s eye. 

The interviewees for my book spoke about the quality of some artworks to have an inexplicable quality that makes them interesting over time – that every time they see the work, they discover something new about it or themselves.  It keeps giving. Ms. Roberts’ work fits that criterion for me. 

The exhibit also included a little booth with two curtained-off seats where you could sit and read a litany of exotic first names given to African-American children. I didn’t spend much time with them, feeling like I got the gist of those pieces right away and now I don’t recall more details about them. I do remember appreciating the departure from the rest of the works, though, and it was my husband’s favorite part of the show. 

As much as I enjoyed her work, I have to admit that I couldn’t argue with my husband’s comment that there was a quality of “seen one, seen ‘em all.” Except for the text work, all the pieces seemed like variations of the same piece, or at least variations of the same message. Hmmm…it just occurred to me that, because of the singular focus of her work, it could be quite interesting if Deborah Roberts were to create an installation. 

As an artist, I can attest to the fact that it’s very enjoyable to explore a particular style and content of work for a while — and yet, after a time, it can become a recipe and, as one of the artists I interviewed, Vincent Falsetta said, “No surprise for the artist, no surprise for the viewer.”

I find myself curious and eager to see how Deborah Roberts’ work evolves and changes in the years to come. 

Now that I’ve been out to see art again, I’m eager to do it some more!