On The Work of Rita Rogers
by Gary Zebrun
Painted mostly in the artist's second-floor studio in The Point neighborhood of Newport, these works by Rita Rogers had their genesis in less cramped quarters: the physical world of the water and sky and thickets of her seaside city and the metaphysical space of her prodigious mind and heart.
Rogers' style is decidedly abstract expressionist, but her execution is never imitative, even though it's clear she's paid attention to American painters who came directly before her, men such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell.
No doubt she would agree with Motherwell who opposed the anti-intellectualism of much American art and believed in the artistic creed that “ideas modify feelings.” While many painters from the '60s onward were moving in the direction of minimalism, pop and postmodern art, and commercialism, Rogers was drawn to other sources: the darker realms of Francisco Goya; the rich symbolic associations in Russian icons and the relief etchings of William Blake; the meditative frescoes of Fra Angelico whose use of color, like Rogers', was at once humble and arresting; and Paul Cezanne's fierce attention to form and the interaction between an object and the eyes of the artist.
In her work are echoes of three of the Old Masters: Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velasquez. She doesn't eschew the spiritual nor does she indulge tortured trajectories of emotions. Feelings matter in her paintings, but she always tries to transcend the personal and find something other in the texture, color, light and movement of the abstract forms.
Some of her paintings are derived directly from Church lore, sometimes in argument with it: drawings of the crucifixion; six stunning oil panels inspired by “The Garden of Love” — one of William Blake's Songs of Innocence; and others filled with circles, triangles, rectangles, chrysalises, wishbone-like appendages, tendrils shooting and slashing, tentacles swirling, as well as less identifiable forms that occupy a space every bit as mystical as the figures depicted in Russian icons.
Rogers' work, however, is not religious art. Her paintings never lose sight of the physicality of the objects she's envisioning, nor of the natural world they spring from. In her paintings are the shifting sky, horizon, clouds and light; the expanse of the Atlantic as it meets a shoreline and the ever changing aspect of the sea; the scrub, fauna and wildlife of Brenton Point where she spends mornings walking and hours drawing; and human forms, usually less identifiable, can occasionally appear among the shapes that sometimes float, sometimes get pinned down, on a canvas.
John Updike wrote, in his book of essays on American art, STILL LOOKING, that “when a painter acts upon a flat surface, harmonies and balances, congruences and semblances flock into being out of thin air.” Here in this exhibit are testaments to that mysterious sense of order that only a gifted artist leaves for others to see — after the arduous struggle in the storm of her mind and heart and the chaotic world of people and things and forces without which no canvas would be filled.