No explanations are given: if the artist knows the answers, he has taken care not to communicate his knowledge.
Accompanying the Wolf Kahn exhibit which I reviewed two weeks ago, the Thomas Babeor Gallery is offering a show by an intriguing, indeed, weird-artist named William Balthazar Rose. Born in England, Rose teaches painting and drawing at U.C. Santa Cruz and lives part of the year in southern France. These give some biographical context to several of Rose’s landscape oils, such as View of the Berkeley Hills, The Bridge to Iford Manor (in Wiltshire), and French Farmhouse in the Dordogne. But no facts could possibly account for the singular imagination that gives Rose’s paintings their profound and absorbing oddness.
It is a general truth that the artistic imagination is beyond explanation by causes and contexts. Imagination is, in the deepest sense, the artist himself, his signature, his freedom. In this case, we are confronted with an imagined world that is all the more bizarre because, at first, it seems merely a bit enigmatic. It is only after you have looked at Rose’s paintings for a considerable while, without distractions (for these pictures are uncannily silent, and the least outside noise can brake their spell), that there limitless strangeness reveals itself.
I should say right away that these characterizations apply not so much to the artist’s landscapes (such as the ones I mentioned above) as to those of his pictures in which human figures appear. The still lifes, painted with a technique similar to that of the figure compositions, also tend to produce an effect of marginally hypnotic queerness, with kitchen paraphernalia taking the place of people. But it is from the figure scenes that one gets the full force of the ineffable mystery this artist can evoke.
The landscapes, while quite beautiful, are more conventional in subject, technique, and effect. Their mixed ancestry includes the impressionism of painters like Monet, with their shimmering renderings of light, water, reflections, and atmosphere, and the constructive landscapes of Cezanne, where it is not the play of light on surface that counts, but rather the underlying geometry of space and mass.
But Rose’s own personality is evident even when these landscapes appear most traditional. Before The Bridge to Iford Manor and View of the Berkeley Hills, one’s preliminary impression is of the rich, vibrant presence of trees, stone, and water. But after a while, one begins to perceive a curious density lying not in the specific natural objects but in the artist’s vision of them. The world Rose shows us is thick, dark, sculptural yet fluid, a kind of slowly moving lava of being that has clotted into natural forms, but that seems capable of being stirred into motion again, when it will gradually dissolve this scene and with its viscous eddies and upthrusts compose another.
There is an inherent eeriness about all this, yet it is held in check by the overall naturalism. There are fewer restraints in the figure compositions. Take the small, mystifying painting, Boys Playing, for example. In a somber atmosphere of heavy, dark colors, we see four figures, one sitting, three standing, all stiff as though they were painted wood statues. Their forms are simplified, each with only three or four flattened areas of color, without textural details or identifiable faces. One holds a ball, but he is facing away from the others. One stands at attention, wearing a tall white chef’s cap. They are all static, isolated, petrified, in a congealed dream-world.
Playing seems scarcely to be the action they are engaged in, but what they are in fact doing is unknowable. Their characters, their feelings, their states of mind, their intentions, their relationships all remain beyond intelligibility and even beyond speculation, as does the unexplained presence of the chef. We seem to be present at the rite of an unknown religion, with the figures lined up as in an Egyptian wall-painting: a seated god, a ritually clad priest-king, and two servants yet there is nothing specifically in the picture to indicate that we have anything here but a commonplace genre scene.
Similar is Chefs Being Questioned. The questioner sits at a desk, writing. The high-hated chefs, like members of a medieval Spanish religious confraternity or melancholy celebrants of Carnevale in Venice, stand stiffly before him, with a few of them looming out of the background darkness. Where are we? What is happening? What are the chefs being questioned about? Why are we being shown this scene at all? No explanations are given: if the artist knows the answers, he has taken care not to communicate his knowledge. Yet the emotional tone is compelling, in spite of (perhaps because of) its ambiguity. It is not explicitly threatening; these are only cooks, after all. But there is something unsettling about the picture: the darkness, the costumes, the dramatic confrontation (suggestive of the inquisition) that nevertheless gives rise to no overt expressions of will or feeling.
Other paintings using white be-hated chefs to evoke this sense of emotional disorientation are Young Chef Rehearsing the Dinner Menu, The Unfortunate Chef, and The Young Smoker. In this last, however, the dominant figure is not one of the two somewhat diverse cooks (they are differentiated by the height of their hats), but a boy fitted into the lower right-hand corner, who ignores the trivial action altogether and gazes out at us in a blank, unfocused way, as though posing for his picture. He too wears a white hat, but it is a large-brimmed and floppy, a peasant’s hat, that has been turned into a set of graceful arcs, just as he has reduced the boy himself to a group of simple curves, lines, and tubular forms.
The reductive treatment of forms and surfaces in Rose’s pictures- another example of this odd, dark, geometrized world is the exquisite Fete Trumpetre he calls Pastoral, is reminiscent of Piero della Francesca, and so is the static quality, as though time and action were suspended forever. But the artists these paintings remind me of most are from 18th century Venice: Pietro Longhi, with his peculiarly mysterious genre scenes, and Domenico Tiepolo, whose strange pictures of white-costumed clowns in their tall smoke-stack hats may have given inspiration to Rose for his own preoccupation with chefs, and here is the oddest (and most delightful) fact of all about William Balthazar Rose: that an artist in this day and age should ignore all current fashions and take as his model Venetian art of the 18th Century, and make something so wonderful of it!
Jonathan Saville Art Critic, San Diego
Jonathan Saville wrote the essay But What Are Those Chefs Cooking? For the San Diego Reader. The exhibition was held at Thomas Babeor and Co. in La Jolla, and was shown alongside an exhibition of the painter Wolf Kahn. The exhibition was a sellout with the entire collection of paintings going to the collection of Mason Phelps one of the directors of the San Diego County Museum.
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