Michael Rottman’s appealing new exhibition “Connections” kicks off Featherstone’s 2022 curatorship of the Feldman Family Art Space at the M.V. Film Center. And it is connection in the truest sense of the word, because Rottman’s art is all about making connections in our own mind among his symbolic imagery. His wildly inviting paintings beckon us to linger as more and more reveals itself, engulfing us in a world that we ultimately make wholly our own.
“I didn’t start any of these paintings knowing what was going to come out,” the artist says. “I do a little meditation, and then go into a piece. Each develops on its own, pulling what I was thinking at the time out of my head. It’s very fluid. It’s like cooking, and like dancing. I was able to create these works without thinking about creating them.”
“Walking into” Rottman’s art, there are no holds barred. In the 3- by 4-foot “Butter,” we see the brilliant yellow stick of the stuff just to the left of a bold red lobster that takes center stage, sitting on top of a bright turquoise background. Rottman says, “That’s what’s really fun about the series. I’ve never had paintings with lobsters in them before. I don’t know the symbolism behind it, but the fact is that they just kept appearing, and I went with it. I wasn’t expecting to put lobsters in abstract, funky paintings.”
Rottman said he feels that the crustaceans might come from all the years he spent working at the Menemsha Fish House. For him, there’s a similar creative process in being an artist and being a chef. “I cook the same way that I paint, and I paint the same way that I cook … they’re both very fluid and instinctual,” Rottman says.
Above to the left in “Butter” is what Rottman refers to as a chicken man wearing a mask lying down looking up at the cycle of the moon overhead in the night sky. The painting started out horizontal.
“Before things start to appear, I’m constantly flipping a canvas 360° to see which way it goes,” Rottman says. “When this piece first began, he was kind of on a diving board, and then when I put it vertically, the diving board became a white cloud.” The right side is populated with what he refers to as his Picasso- and Jean-Michel Basquiat-type faces that organically made their own sudden arrival during the creation process.
Rottman just finished his 2- by 4-foot “Lancelot,” which is very much of the moment. The large, crowned horse stretching across the canvas and huge lobster on its back relate to the situation in the Ukraine, which he finds terribly upsetting. Being a news junkie, Rottman believes that in the back of his head he was thinking about who is going to ride in to save the day. “Then all of a sudden, this figure appeared on the right, and I thought maybe it was Sir Lancelot. It started to turn into a story for me, even though these things are kind of unrelated, but in another way, they are related.”
For Rottman, art is the window into society, and artists have the responsibility to take the intangible feeling of what he calls “this hot mess” and create something you can relate to about how you are feeling about the situation.
The 3- by 4-foot “Goldfish” is as complex visually. The central goldfish bowl has a precedent in Matisse’s still life, but Rottman got his inspiration from Island artist Billy Hoff, who did his own piece with a goldfish. Through color and shapes, Rottman populates this fabulously appealing fantasy with intriguingly depicted images — a snake, fire, bag of golf clubs, and butterfly-like creature floating mysteriously above.
In terms of his symbolism, Rottman thinks of himself as having a good sense of humor. Looking at the 3- by 4-foot dynamic composition “Avocado Shark,” he sees what sort of resembled an avocado morph into a shark, which makes sense to him given that “Jaws” is so relevant to the Island and, thus, felt he had artistic license to take things in a different direction. Rottman says, “Then you have the Nike cleat and bird that just sort of appeared.” And once again, we see the chef allusion, with the French term “cuire” floating inside a pot of boiling water in the painting. Rottman has lived on the Island full-time since 2007. “This series focuses on symbolism, eccentricism, and expressive imagery,” Rottman explains. “I am grateful to be showing my bigger, abstract, whimsical work, apart from my impressionistic landscapes.
“When I paint in this dream-comical style, it creates a story that is left up to the viewer to decipher. Certain images and symbols may speak to viewers and others may not, and that’s OK. For me it’s been about discovery, and trying something new.”
“Connections” will be on view through April 24 at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. You can follow Michael Rottman on Instagram at ArtFoodLifeMV.