It is a pleasure and an education to see Marie-Louise Rouff’s latest exhibition of paintings, newly hung in the West Tisbury library’s program room. Since the late 1990s, she has explored her very personal abstract imagery in the media of acrylic paintings and monotypes.
They are powerful, lyrical, mysterious, some luminous with layers of color under- and overpainted, others densely opaque. Here, in this airy, bright room, viewers have the opportunity to walk right up for a close examination.
Marie-Louise invited me to her studio last week to look at and talk about the paintings that would be in her show. They looked beautiful in her studio. But the studio is small. The paintings were stacked along a wall. There wasn’t as much natural light as at the library. So we had our conversation, always interesting and revealing, and I knew I had to see the paintings hung in a space where they could truly be seen.
There are 14 paintings and one monotype with chine-collé, a way of adhering tissue-thin paper or cut-out paper shapes to the heavier paper support as the inked monotype goes through the printing press. Many of the paintings are in-your-face large, in variations of dimensions from four to five feet in any direction, although they tend to be vertical or square. The smallest are 12 by 12 in. They all make an impact.
“High Square” is the first painting on the left as you enter the program room. A glowing not-quite-square floats in the upper third of the painting, surrounded by hints of other lightnesses that could be parts of other squares. Or not. By glazing with thin washes of paint mixed with lots of medium, the artist has produced a surface of luminosity, with shadows of lightness and darkness on an overall ochre face. There is a sense of redness underneath, and charcoal drawing that begins to describe something, then disappears or fades off. A change of color or value appears to heighten the sense of descriptive meaning of those charcoal lines.
Next is “Red Up,” a painting to get lost in. Red appears painted up and over many of the edges of shapes, softening them, while in other places these edge shapes are hard, intruding into the overall color rather than delicately tailing off the sides and edges. Diagonal charcoal-drawn and ochre-painted verticals cut through the red.
Make sure to give your attention to the edges and around the sides of Marie-Louise’s paintings. They are intentional, an intrusion into and around the face of the painting and a continuation of it, more than what at first appears. As the artist said, “Painting around the edges gives the impression that it continues. The first thing you see, the front, is the point of departure.”
Look at “Shadows,” a 36-inch square, composed of the palest values of white, a creamy pale ochre, and pinkish red. At the edges, thin washes and marks of green, cobalt blue, and yellow sit and slither above/below the overall pale façade. The charcoal-drawn shapes appear organic rather than geometric, feeling almost figurative, though more like one of Willem de Kooning’s women, or a riff on the shapes in early Richard Diebenkorn paintings.
Paired next to pale “Shadows” is “Fresh Light,” with a similar organic quality but with more intense, saturated color overall, the edges and undercolors quite dominant. An interesting juxtaposition.
“Sky Revels” and “Grey” are another pairing of paintings that contrast and yet relate to one another. “Sky Revels,” aptly named, depicts a scrim of pale blue floating over the more typical ochre. The edges are highlighted with heavy charcoal and black-painted marks in some places, disappearing and softening to leave passages of exquisite delicacy. Strongly painted color and mark-making set against this ochre and blue, delineating left and right sides that in my mind should dominate that vaporous blue, but they don’t. There is so much under and through the blue area that the viewer’s eye is captured and held.
“Grey” is another anomaly, a painting of warm pink-lavender gray that fills the surface. But where the blue in “Sky Revels” draws you in, this gray seems to recede and push your attention to the edges, particularly to a solid green shape on the left that devolves into a peachy-ochre-red across the bottom of the painting. Again, it reminds me of Diebenkorn’s use of drawing, his own special language of shapes and colors and marks, especially as Marie-Louise has set down a series of narrow marks on the right side of her painting.
Marie-Louise speaks reverently of Richard Diebenkorn as an artist who has influenced her work. “He is absolutely my hero,” she said, before mentioning Matisse, “my first hero before I discovered Diebenkorn.” Interestingly, it was seeing Matisse’s work early in his career that engaged Diebenkorn in a lifelong artistic dialogue between the two — not in real life, but in the play of ideas and inspiration that studying Matisse’s work sparked for Diebenkorn. The same can be said for Marie-Louise.
I won’t describe any of the other paintings in the show. I leave it to you to make your own discoveries and observations.
Notice that the titles of Marie-Louise’s paintings sound descriptive, many similar to what might be titles of traditional landscapes. She speaks eloquently about making art, particularly abstract art that comes from observed landscapes and representational subjects from her daily life. But once she begins to paint, she says, “everything shifts all the time — shadows, colors, taking a break and coming back to the painting, getting tired, or hungry, or thirsty — I’m painting a collection of memories. Time actually replaces the object in front of you, and replaces it with something different.” The paint itself becomes part of the subject, and she considers that her patient exploration of the possibilities of acrylic paint, learning to work with it, becomes integral to the painting. She said, “It allows you to do things I never expected to do when I used oils.”
I include a comment Marie-Louise made during one of our conversations, as it was a good explanation of what differentiated abstract painting from representational painting. “Representational painting and vocal music both tell a story to render the message. Abstract painting and instrumental music render the message without the story.”
Talking, or writing, about art brings up as many questions as it answers. Marie-Louise would likely say that it’s all there to be explored on the surface of the painting. And a delicious exploration it is, a life’s dedication to asking those questions and working out possible explanations in colored marks on a flat surface.
Marie-Louise Rouff’s paintings will remain on display at the West Tisbury Free Public Library through the month of August. You may also call her at 508-693-2072 to make an appointment to visit her studio.