Veteran Kansas City artist Warren Rossers new abstractions reflect on vast distances, in both formal and symbolic ways.
By NEIL THRUN
Special to The Star
His exhibit The Space Between, at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, features compositions of architectural forms and geometric scaffoldings of triangles and trapezoids.
While Rossers canvases are a literal examination of space and form, the exhibit also explores memories of his early years growing up in Wales, his time in America painting and teaching and more recent trips to Berlin.
In the front room of the gallery hangs a painting titled The Space Between, from which the exhibition took its title. A vast field of bright orange is flanked by two vertical columns of triangles, the left column various shades of blue and the right column dull tans and grays. Sticking out the right side of the canvas are pieces of cut wood, continuing the angular column.
In an interview, Rosser described part of his method for making the paintings: One set of shapes is put down before a second set of forms is placed in reaction to the first set. He called this a radical interruption and compared it to the manner in which buildings are often constructed, one after another, so that the new buildings have to react to the designs of older, nearby buildings.
But Rosser emphasized that the space referred to was not just a physical space of lines and shapes, but also the space of memories of the vertical buildings, cliffs and hills of his native Wales.
Born and raised in Wales in the 1940s, Rosser attended school at Cardiff University in the capital city. Trained in traditional painting techniques, he began to experiment with abstract sculpture and painting toward the end of his time at the university.
Rosser left the United Kingdom in 1972 to paint and teach in Kansas City. He has been a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute for 42 years and the chairman of the painting department and William T. Kemper distinguished professor for the last 28 years.
Having taught countless artists and creative types (including this writer in 2008), Rosser is a pillar of the Kansas City art community. Over the years, he has exhibited with many local galleries, including the Jan Weiner Gallery; he has also been a resident artist at the Studios Inc. (formerly Review Studios).
One of Rossers first experiences seeing abstract paintings was in the early 1960s at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. He and some friends took a train into the city for the day. When they saw the abstractions by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and others, they were astonished and scrambled to find a place to stay for the night so they could see the exhibit again the next day.
When Rosser recounted this story, there was an air of grand discovery, like an explorer discovering a new land. It emphasized an important aspect of his own exhibit: Not only has abstract art undergone many changes over the last half century, but Rossers work has too.
His exhibit incorporates a variety of styles: the hard geometry of minimalism, the rough textures of abstract expressionism, the graphic outlines and bright colors of pop art. Monument, a painting of a geometric mass of black lines, filled in with different tans, grays and browns, is particularly reminiscent of early futurist and constructivist paintings. Inspired by a recent trip to Berlin, Rosser composed Monument based on Soviet-era buildings and monuments that are found across the eastern part of the city.
In a way, Berlin is a decent metaphor for the state of abstract art today. Once divided in two, east from west, communism from democracy, it is now a single city. Remnants and relics from both its capitalist and Soviet past mingle; where ideological tension once boiled, it now could be said to only simmer.
Over the course of the 20th century, abstract artists were also divided in factions: revolutionary futurists railed against the formalism of cubists, while minimalists protested the spirituality of the abstract expressionists, and pop-art provocateurs cracked jokes at everyones expense.
Today, much like Berlin, such ideological distinctions have faded and styles blend. It is not uncommon to find the formalist jargon of minimalism mixing with the spiritual rhetoric of expressionism, or for historians to downplay or even outright ignore the Italian futurists connections to the fascist government. Where once abstract art was shocking, strange and new, it now mixes and mingles in an endless digital soup of visual culture.
For Rosser, A Space Between isnt a critical appraisal of the history of abstract art, of who was right or who was wrong, but instead functions more as a formalist reflection on the historical, but also very personal, passing of time. Perhaps the lingering ideological contradictions of 20th-century art are for a younger generation to sort out.
Warren Rosser: A Space Between continues at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave., through March 22. The gallery is also showing Chris Gustin: Breath and Arnie Zimmerman: Slabs, Tubes, & Holes. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. For more information, call 816-221-2626 or go to SherryLeedy.com.