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British artist Roni Stretch’s dichromatic portraits: Presence as purity

My first response to Roni Stretch’s paintings was: how extraordinarily exquisite, and how original. I knew of nothing quite like them in the history of modern, let alone traditional, art: an ingenious, convincing integration of color field painting, minimalist structure, and photo-realist portraiture. Cutting edge postmodern for sure, for Stretch’s Dichromatic Portraits synthesize what are usually regarded as incommensurate--not simply abstraction and representation, but pure painting, with its effect of hermetic immediacy and aesthetic self-sufficiency.

In other words, Stretch ingeniously reunites what such pioneering abstractionists as Malevich and Mondrian separated: the non-objective and the objective. Stretch’s surfaces are sensuously elegant; the images embedded in them deviously evident, as though the sensuous surface was some cognitive veil. He’s clearly forcing the limits of perception, suggesting that we always stand on the threshold between blindness and (in)sight: it’s as though the images are blind spots that suddenly become visible inside us, indicating that they are our own mental representations rather than externally real--which helps explain their ghostly, auratic presence and precious intangibility.

This idea led me to my second response: Stretch’s paintings are meditational exercises. Their perfectionism is at once spiritual and technical: the realization of perfect consciousness--and all art is ultimately about states of consciousness--and the seamless integration of figure and ground that symbolizes it. The eureka moment of “re-cognition”-- the instant we become conscious of the face within the inscrutable surface, as though it was some hallucinatory projection of our own (the moment when we are inside the painting not simply contemplating it from the outside, a “seeing in” that suggests that the face we see is our own mask)--is the classic moment of enlightenment.

The paintings are in fact conceptual, for both the portrait and the surface exist as Platonic ideas however physically real. Ironically, their conceptual aspect is made clear by the system of their making: the sitter is photographed, a particular photograph chosen, a photo-realistic rendition of the photograph is painted-- similar to the way a design functions as the template guiding the painting of a fresco-- and then overpainted with two alternating layers of color, the second applied after the first has dried.

Stretch’s paintings are not only meticulously executed, but polished with a certain Renaissance reserve, as the final application of three layers of resin suggests. These hide the marks of the work that went into the painting; Castiglione insisted that a true master must always do so, as final proof of his mastery, and also to add the lustre and resonance of the everlasting to the image. Stretch does not simply paint over the initial underpainting - the camera becomes the painter’s observing second eye, the photograph the preliminary drawing--but eternalizes or idealizes it by ”re-envisioning” it as the perfect monochromatic picture plane.

Stretch’s sublime handling reminds us that Conceptualism’s dismissal of craft and the material medium (the so-called dematerialization of art) was a mistake to begin with. Not only does Stretch’s high craft correct it, but seems to demonstrate that the process of making a material painting can reflect the idea immanent in the painting by way of its own reflective character.

In other words, process can be a mode of deliberation as well as the means of achieving a product worth the contemplative trouble. The process has to be reflective if the work is to rise above the mundane reality that is its point of departure, which Stretch’s transcendental paintings do.

(Reprinted with permission by the author.)