TextHugh Roberts, a painter and one of Brattleboro’s seminal figures in the local arts scene, passed away suddenly this January.
Roberts helped to start the Windham Art Gallery, back in 1989, and was a member up until a couple of years ago. But he was, above all, an engaged, dedicated, and generous artist. Fortuitously, during the month of December Roberts had a one-person show at the gallery space in the Edwards Jones office on lower Main Street and it was extended through January as well. A comprehensive show of the artist’s work will hang at the West Village Meeting House through February. It incorporates the Jones show on one wall in the chapel and has work from the past decades in the vestibule and main meeting room.
From a reviewer’s perspective, Roberts’ paintings contributed much to the local collective artscape. His work has a distinct and unique flavor. His art captures the spiritual underpinning of so much of what this part of the world is about. One need only count the number of churches, Buddhist groups, and other religious entities, the degree of concern given to humanitarian issues, and the amount of charitable work that goes on, to see that Brattleboro has a strong and prominent spiritual life. This ethos was the lifeblood of Roberts’ work.
By all accounts a strongly spiritual, caring and generous individual, Roberts donated to the West Village Meeting House, home of the Unitarians and once home of the Jewish congregation Shir Heharim, seven of his large paintings. They are there on permanent display.
The paintings of Roberts that comprise the memorial show at West Village Meeting House have a unifying presence of light playing against darker elements, and Roberts’ attraction through the years to glowing metallic pigment. They seem to aim to give form to the ineffable. Never has this been expressed with more conviction, more natural ease, than in the artist’s show that has been moved over to West Brattleboro from Main Street.
There have been many strong paintings over the years, as attested to by the show in West Brattleboro. But when the artist was not on his game, the work could feel too amorphous. Spiritual, yes, but needing “teeth” – somehow, to bring that spirituality down to earth a bit so we have something to grasp, visually and experientially. In the nineties Roberts started incorporating architectural elements into the paintings, sometimes actual cornices or other pieces of buildings (Roberts has worked on and off as a carpenter). The hard edges, whether actual or painted, played against the atmospheric paint, and lent the work structure. There are several fine examples of this period at the Meeting House.
In his newest work, Roberts dispenses with the architectural element, but the work has retained a strong structure. The “scaffolding” is gone and the paintings shine forth with a brilliance and an inner logic that is masterful.
Roberts’ last show, the show at Edwards Jones, was comprised, aside from several larger paintings and a set of three miniatures, of the series, “Legend of El Dorado”. El Dorado is the mythical “city of gold” that led explorers to the new world. There are ten from this series that now hang in West Brattleboro.
The “El Dorado” paintings are made up of acrylic paint, tissue paper, and metal leaf on panel boards. These are delicate, elegant balancing acts that are lifted into the realm of the spiritual by virtue of their quiet dignity and centeredness. They luxuriate in color, what light does as it refracts off sun tones, or is negated and held back by darkness. Orange, white, and black paint is overlaid with gold, either speckled or in bands. In “El Dorado #10: Rio Grande Gorge”, a vertical area of ultramarine winds its way across the middle of the picture, dividing it diagonally, the blue a vivid relief to sun-parched hues.
Another of my favorites of this series is Legend of El Dorado #9, in which a gleaming square of gold seems to have cleft the picture into two sun-drenched precipices, or risen up from them. A small bright orange splash bursts forth near the center, relieving the restrained, angular lines.
Texture is very important to all of Roberts’ work through the years, which at times included collages of objects embedded in paint. In the El Dorado series it is achieved through the use of tissue paper that is crinkled, clumped, folded.
Dan Sherry, a long-time friend of Roberts’, and fellow artist, said they often went on museum excursions together, and that Roberts was as knowledgeable about art history as anyone he knows. “He knew some of the more art obscure history such as the Russian Constructivist movement. In fact he painted a whole series in homage to it. He knew the work of Malevich, Rodchenko. It was great knowing someone like that. There were artists he loved, particularly George Innes (American 18th Century landscapist). Sometimes he imagined his own work to be close to Innes, but I would tell him, ‘No, it’s Turner!’…he was so atmospheric”. In the Edwards Jones show, it appears he has finally deferred to his friend and titled one painting, “Turneresque”. And indeed it is. Unlike most of the paintings in the show, whose palette I have already described, “Turneresque” is all silvery blues with hints, as in sunlight breaking through a mist, of pale yellow, the colors and tones similar to those Turner used in his many paintings of the canals of Venice, the ornate edifices lost in fog and mist.
Of work taken from Roberts’ archives, my personal favorites are “The Bridge”, reminding me of this beloved theme of Georgia O’Keefe’s, but this with much looser brushwork. And a relatively large abstract from 2005 with swashbuckling brushwork of bright yellow, orange, and ochre, audaciously imposed upon by two columns of black paint that rise from the bottom of the canvas and frame the dips and swirls.
At the far end of the main hall wall, perhaps 3 feet by 4 feet, is a wonderful painting from the architectural period. It contains concentric arches going from blue-grey to gold. Framed by the arches is a loosely sketched figure of a woman, her delicate hands, and the whole, like a jazz riff on a Renaissance altarpiece.
In some respects the “Legend of El Dorado” series feels like a fitting final bow if there had to be one. Elements long present in Roberts’ “oeuvre” are pulled together, taut, and accomplished.
Yet as a painter, Roberts was restless and curious and exploratory. His friend, fellow carpenter and artist Rick Zamore, confessed, with the tone of an affectionate and chiding older brother, “He was always going back and forth” (between realism and abstract), “and it drove me nuts. I wanted him to choose one thing or the other.” We can conjecture where he would have taken his art next. Says Dan Sherry, Roberts “loved pluralism…For an artist working out some esthetic in your paintings, going away from it, coming back…it’s like being in a warm bath.” Joe LoManoco, whose office has hosted this show, said, “Even as we hung the show, he was looking at his paintings, finding new things.”
Perhaps his muse would have taken him further into the realm of the “field” painters, where the action on the canvas is almost imperceptible, where “Turneresque” seems to be headed, and the wonderful “Desert Flower”, made of mulberry bark, paper, and acrylics, its large round flower seeming to materialize before one’s eyes from its ochre and pale yellow “background”.
One thing is for sure. El Dorado may be a mythical place, but Roberts has given us true treasures – almost thirty years worth – testament to a rich and passionate creative life.
The Commons, Brattleboro