Five Questions for Artist Richard Roth
Excerpted from Lisa Kellner’s 2019 interview with Richard Roth from her blog, “Five Questions for Artists.”
What process do you go through in preparing for a work that you are about to make? (drawing, sketching, writing, experimenting, etc…)
I begin the small 3D polychrome paintings by working on panels that are identical in size and shape to the final paintings; these are actually prototypes of paintings. I develop ideas as quickly as possible and the paintings change repeatedly. I often use colored tape to alter forms, whatever’s fast—things get messy and I usually just paint one side and the front, just enough for me to understand the painting in space. I follow ideas as they appear, most forms get painted over, but it’s a great day when I’m totally surprised by where the painting has taken me. I photograph every stage in the process and have quite a large archive of the work in various stages, configurations I don’t yet fully understand. When I “find the painting,” when it’s right, I repaint it carefully on a new panel. I don’t love this final part of the process—re-fabrication—but I believe it is necessary for the idea of the work to be read clearly and without any kind of nostalgic patina. The first step of the process is the “party,” the second step is “what the paintings demand.”
How did you arrive at your current art practice? Was there a pivotal moment that got you there?
I painted for many years beginning around 1969, then in 1993 my practice became more conceptual—I created collections of contemporary material culture for more than ten years. In the early nineties, I expected too much of painting; felt it could never live up to what I needed it to be. I decided to steer around painting. I love custom cars, fashion, and the culinary arts, but in 1993 was embarrassed by the pretentiousness of my own culture—painting. It wasn’t until I could see painting as just another subculture, not as the culture, not as high culture, that I could re-enter it with full enthusiasm and without cynicism. I returned to painting in 2005 with a renewed and revitalized interest, fueled by conceptualism and informed by postmodern attitudes. Now, painting for me is like returning home.
What does an ideal studio day look like for you?
Recently, I wrote a novel—NoLab. Its characters are mostly artists. In NoLab I created many artworks that would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to create in the real world. NoLab might be understood to be a conceptual project in its own right. NoLab’s just been released, and I’m presently writing novel number two. Consequently, for the last few years, my ideal studio day has consisted of two distinct halves. Usually, in the morning I write. In the afternoon I’m at my studio, following hunches, making and altering form and color. What if I stretch this form? Make that corner darker? Turn this section upside down? The mysterious process of arriving at a painting is intoxicating. That’s my ideal studio day. Words, words, words in the morning. color/form in the silent, wordless afternoon.
What inspires you in the world outside of your work and studio?
Everything really. Since I began working on the 3D polychrome paintings, I realized that the entire world was 3D form combined with a surface of color/pattern. Nature, the built world, design, clothing—everything is 3D polychrome! So, there’s no shortage of inspiration.
For me, the play of the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional is undoubtedly the horse that pulls the cart. The paintings can be informed by such things as the exposed form that results from slicing through a layer cake or a melon—red inside juxtaposed with a green skin outside; the rectangular hole in a concrete block; striped high-heel shoes with red soles.
Abstraction that flirts with popular culture, my work aspires to be part of the community of objects that includes West African fabric patterns, Zulu baskets, Navajo blankets, early American quilts, Day of the Dead masks, bird decoys, Shaker furniture, Indonesian bamboo fish traps, Prouvé chairs, George Ohr pots, Carlo Scarpa glassware, Japanese rice boxes, Luis Barragan houses, Raf Simons fashion, Cervélo racing bicycles, contemporary Ghanaian coffins, street fashion, and monster trucks. And, yes, I know my work can’t escape the community of all the paintings and artworks that ever existed—a thought that can drive one to distraction.
Though I love form and structure in painting, I don’t consider myself a modernist, strictly concerned with the purity of form. I feel naturally aligned with more playful postmodern attitudes. Form, yes. Formalism, no.
Sure, here are some random thoughts:
My work owes a lot to optical illusions. When I first saw the Ebbinghaus illusion, I thought, that’s what abstract painting should be doing – exploring how the brain works!
My painting learned a lot from chess. A good chess move does many things simultaneously. If you move a pawn forward, that’s good, you begin to control space on the board; if your pawn is also part of a larger strategic plan, great; if it also threatens one of your opponent’s pieces, better yet. The objective: one move, but not a simple move, a layered move with manifold implications.
My painting doesn’t want to go formal, it wants to dress down.
My work has more in common with a Modernist chair than a Baroque painting.
My work is a conversation with the contested legacy of Modernism.
My painting is anti-heroic abstraction that flirts with popular culture.