Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Favorite Picnics

Roland Petersen, Shaded Picnic, 1967

Above: Roland Petersen, (b. Denmark, 1926) Spring Picnic,

Roland Petersen, An American Picnic, 1967

Below: Family Picnic, 1961

Roland Petersen: “A Natural Order” Exhibit at Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA

by Dewitt Cheng:
Oil paint generously applied like mortar or icing— what’s not to like? Fellow students of the young Van Gogh may have mocked his dripping, overloaded canvases, but for us the transfiguration of the optical into the material and vice versa in, say, Manolo Valdes or Frank Auerbach is an aesthetic fait accompli, if not downright miracle. The heavily impasted “picnic” paintings that Roland Petersen made in the 1960s while teaching at the University of California at Davis (with its Annual Picnic Day) exemplify the old paradox of matter infused with spirit. In addition, these depictions of anonymous figures in sunstruck Central Valley landscapes demonstrate that expressionism can attain the “aura of timelessness”—of the classic tradition. Citing Egyptian statuary and Seurat as inspirations (Oral history interview with Roland C. Petersen, 2002 Sept. 17, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), the artist observes, “The ghost of the past enters into my work all the time.”

Yet Petersen is no historicist or pasticheur. Trained in abstraction by painter Hans Hofmann, and in figuration by photographer Minor White, he synthesizes the two approaches, creating “the whole world... through the mystic realm of color (Hofmann).” Superimposing sketches and painterly accidents into a “stratification of information,” he paints dialectical works alive with contrasts—between flat and modeled, free and controlled, abstract and figurative; between existentially isolated figures and their brilliant-hued, Pop-palette surroundings. Here the flat rectangles and brushy fields of Hofmann’s pure abstractions merge and tilt backward to create a ground-plane perspectivally mapped by tables, place settings, checkerboard tablecloths, and the zigzagging edges of fields and lawns. The paintings are American-scaled stages, arenas or game boards (delimited by curtainlike skies) onto which pensive Matissean models are set down, and into which they’re assimilated; and in which Cubism’s transparent planes transform into fields of surging color, barely contained within compositional dikes and levees that are so insistently rendered as to seem almost carved into the paint. They’re opulent modernist depictions of mythical Arcadias or Golden Ages transposed to the prosperous 1960s California suburbs, but truthful enough to depict the lapses into silence and reflection that all semi-mandatory social functions contain.

“An American Picnic,” 1961, Roland Petersen, Oil on canvas, 493⁄4" x 713⁄4"
Photo: PHOCASSO / J.W.White
Courtesy Hackett-Freedman Gallery

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