This presentation of fifteen paintings is organized in two groups. The largest includes the debut of nine new paintings created in Florida from 2016 through 2022. They are presented alongside a suite of five paintings from 2015, Five Times During The Day, that consider the light and corresponding colors and impressions during different times of day from early morning to sunset. The last, and earliest painting in the exhibition is a more rigorously geometric work from 2009 titled Emanuel Shinwell Goes to University, it’s very subtle differences between adjacent dark colors gave rise to the first—an even darker grid painting—in the series Five Times During The Day. These last six paintings were the final works completed in California prior to Gilbert-Rolfe’s move to Florida.
Gilbert-Rolfe’s interest in the viewing experience is what ties his various works and approaches together, first is exploration of the surfaces followed by the use of color to create a “projection [ . . . ] into the space between [the painting] and its viewer.” Closer inspection of the surfaces generally results in deconstructing the artist’s process to reveal not only the many layers of paint and underpainting, but also the influences from artists such as “Manet, Cézanne, Newman and Ryman” and numerous art historical references.
Gilbert-Rolfe’s paintings are full of binaries and contrasts, both within and between individual paintings and bodies of work over time. Such binaries include: geometric shapes and grids versus gestural and expressionistic passages, often in the same composition; saturated colors juxtaposed next to softer pastel hues; hard edge shapes adjacent to pillowy soft and diffuse forms or grounds. The artist has noted that generally his work is considered “geometric abstraction”, but recently posited that perhaps “post-minimalism” might be a better fit given his interest in process and the viewing experience versus a preconceived final composition.
Consistent with the post-minimalism reference, many of the binaries and contrasts in his work seem to be brought about through his approach to handling the oil medium with palette knife and brush, often yielding end results that seem different than expected. Particularly, in several of the newest paintings, the brushwork reads more like pastel than paint. Examples of this approach include (t)here, 2018 and Early Evening, 2015. On the other end of the spectrum, several paintings are more geometric and grid-like, reading hard edge from a distance yet have very painterly and brushy areas both as ground and within the geometric shapes. Such examples include: Space Surface and Depth (Cello), 2018, Emanuel Shinwell Goes to University, 2009 and Early Dawn, 2015.
Analyzing, comparing, and contemplating the paintings in the current presentation, there also seems to be a nod to Patterning and Suprematism. Consistent with the artist’s stated interests in “complexity” and “space” between the painting and viewer, the subtle references to Pattern Painting achieves both, but in different ways in Emanuel Shinwell Goes to University, 2009 and Malatesta, 2018 (which are hung next to each other in the exhibition. The painting, Emanuel Shinwell Goes to University, 2009 is a highly structured grid, but through two contrasting color palettes, the composition is bisected diagonally into halves, one darker and the other lighter. However, it is the shift in width of the grid in the central portion of the composition and value shifts in colors, as well as further subdividing of the interior of certain ranges of squares that brings about the overall patterning and interior patterns within individual squares. The net effect is: first, complexity, and second, a fragmentation of the surface in combination with the clustering of light and dark hues and corresponding value shifts that creates a push-pull effect and spatial depth within the composition.
In a more subtle approach, the surface of Malatesta, 2018 is fragmented by using a simple pair of perpendicular brushy strokes that are repeated to create a cohesive ground. The central geometric elements are not just floating on the surface, but there is a suggestion of spatial depth between each element achieved in various ways: first, the ark of the white and black elements with the strong contrast in colors and variations in widths creates an imagined shadow line; and second, the use of warm and cool colors for the rectilinear geometric shapes starts positioning them spatially one in front of the other. In this painting, one could argue that the repetition of the subtle ground colors and resulting pattern function to both fragment the surface and simultaneously activate the viewer’s eye and challenge visual perception. The net effect from the viewer’s perspective is the possibility of dimensional space and volume, even if that was not the artist’s intent.
The nod to Suprematism is from Gilbert-Rolfe bringing together not only geometric shapes, but also line and color as well as process approaches (as noted above) to create sensations and viewer experiences, not just geometric pictures. The best examples in this presentation that capture such sensations include: Deliberate, 2019, Surge, 2021, Late Afternoon, 2015, (t)here, 2018 and Landscape in the Air, 2017. The artist stated in a recent correspondence, “I think the audience needs to know that I’m concerned to get phenomenal experience that is complicated rather than fundamental on the surface.” These paintings deliver on that request.
There are two striking features that also emerge from viewing the paintings in this presentation and responding to a comment by the artist. The first is the realization of the strong figure and ground relationships in Gilbert-Rolfe’s paintings. However, the grounds do not merely provide context for the geometric shapes, instead, they work hand-in-hand with the shapes to create a dynamic viewing experience as noted above. The grounds often have an active role providing a push-pull effect (see Surge, 2021), or activate the eye to challenge perceptions (Malatesta, 2018), or create a mood and set the tone (Early Evening, 2015). Second, the artist recently made a reference to his interest in a “wall of sound painting”, invoking a visual parallel to the bigger than life and full-frontal auditory experience from music producer Phil Spector. One can argue that Gilbert-Rolfe similarly pulls together formal concerns with his process approach that provides a feedback loop or “reverberation” (in auditory parlance) allowing him to generate the next mark or stroke in response to the prior one to achieve his “wall of sound painting”.