Rothick Art Haus Is Abstract in Anaheim?

Constructivist that I am—in love with a story or message—I'm inherently suspicious of abstract art. I admire the rebellious individuality behind the concept, but I'm suspicious of work that refuses to meet the viewer halfway. If there's no attempt to provide some entrance into the work, that arrogance doesn't lend itself to the takeaway, i.e., food for thought that lasts longer than your time in the gallery.

Thankfully, Rothick Art Haus' current show, “Abstract Intentions” avoids total abstraction, with curator/Rothick co-owner Nick Rothweiler focusing instead on something further down the continuum. Understanding that patrons of art aren't always the brightest—sometimes, they just have money and want their painting to match their couch—Rothweiler has chosen more commercial work (for the most part), work that won't threaten a potential buyer (for the most part), and, ultimately, saves me the embarrassment of shrugging my critical shoulders and mumbling, “I don't get it.”

Several of the artists on display don't even feel like dictionary descriptions of abstract artists: Their work is fanciful, funny, accessible and contains loads of iconography to which I could quickly make associations. All four of Bruce Parker's hilarious black-and-white drawings owe a lot to Keith Haring's early chalk-on-black-paper subway art, and I loved Scary City's urban anxiety as its cowering Batman figure gets surrounded not by arch-criminals, but inner-city vices. Charlie Immer's colorful, grotesque Jellyface would fit right in as a visage-melting extra in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Louis Murillo's Within Reach is a graffiti and cyber-punk triptych reworking Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. Brian Robertson's forlorn collages of teardrop-shaped figures with spider legs and tendril arms, their faces hidden by headscarves, entrances; the preponderance of desert beige and brown, the hijab-like scarves, and the phallic minarets and moons/suns that look like bull's-eyes feels like the artist is referencing the Middle East. Meanwhile, his Heart Punch—two almost identical figures, one shivving an arm through the heart of the other—poetically confirms it.

Much more abstract is Orange County artist Craig Roccanova's obsessive worm drawings and paintings. I'm not sure there's a better name for what they are, even though the convoluted squiggles could be coral, the lobes of a brain or even an unraveled intestine. But they twist and twirl, devouring the canvas they're on with a manic energy. As the “worm thing” rests on one color, its end sniffs and pokes into another color, ready to invade. Aside from faint suggestions of cityscape, eyes or circuit boards half-buried under the thick daubs of acrylic in some of Kelly Berg's mixed-media paintings, there's little for us to intellectually engage with beyond color and form—but, oh, what colors and forms they are! The cross-hatching, curved blocks of white, waves of blue, streaks of Day-Glo green, and thick, black felt-tip marker lines in her most subtly eye-catching piece, Drift, suggest a lurking disintegration and turmoil behind the very lovely, controlled chaos of its veneer.

I like Ryan A. Pratt's previous work in oil a great deal, but I feel his collage work is altogether less successful. Combining disparate images to form new pictures often results in work that has a dreamy quality to it, as if Morpheus had snatched imagery from your nightmares, and Pratt's aggressively unpleasant work on display is no exception. Using photo-reference material from diverse sources—including almanacs, yearbooks, vintage seed catalogs, fashion magazines, ads and anatomy books (from what I can tell)—the artist draws and paints the images by hand on white-washed plywood, mixing his gallery with geometric shapes, sometimes cutting the wood into spiked edges that give the impression the picture is exploding from the wall. I found the Goth girls with bloody mouths, half-dressed women riding zeppelins, nudes with animal heads, Nazis and autopsied torsos disagreeable, but to Pratt's credit, his work gave me my takeaway: Even a couple of days later, I'm still thinking about the damn things.

This article appeared in print as “Abstract In Anaheim? Not really. But Rothick Art Haus’ latest show does pleasantly screw with your mind.”

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