Geometric abstraction and narrative figuration vie in Roland Petersen's masterful paintings at the Elliott Fouts Gallery. A mini-retrospective, the show moves from nonobjective abstractions from the 1950s to fresh-off-the-easel works from his renowned Picnic Series.
The early works grapple with abstract expressionism, reflecting at times his studies with Hans Hoffman. There is a European sensibility to the works that persists into his output today. Part of this may come from his Danish heritage. He was born in Endelave, Denmark, in 1926. While he received his Master of Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950, he studied during several subsequent periods with the printmaker Stanley William Hayter in Paris.
While his works are informed by the Bay Area Figurative work of Elmer Bischoff, David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, Petersen, who was part of the legendary core art faculty at UC Davis, brings a more rigidly structured approach to his paintings of figures at picnic tables. The results are paintings of great abstract dynamism that also convey a sense of alienation and anomie.
His enigmatic figures stare out at the landscape, assiduously avoiding interaction. While the colors are intensely bright, there is a still chilliness to the scenes, as if they were frozen in time and emotionally impenetrable. The figures, rather than being real people, stand in as compositional elements in an elaborately structured abstraction. Still, these paintings dazzle the eye with lively geometric patterning stripes and checkerboards and strong primary colors.
The most recent painting "Picnic With Checkered Table," done this year, pulls you into its world with a sense of inevitability. Here seven figures inhabit a landscape of flattened space and linear patterns. The red-and-white checkered cloth and the looming blue shadow of the male figure sitting with his back turned to the viewer send mixed signals. It's an idyllic sunny day of lollipop trees and jaunty colors with a dark side, a somber overcast.
"Picnic Day" from 2011 is equally intriguing. Here again we have red and white, this time striped, echoed even in the peppermint field in the distance. But the painting is slashed with dark diagonals, and the faces of the people are all in shadow. In "Picnic With Three Umbrellas," 2012, the shadows from the umbrellas fall in dark circles in a composition that is divided by an umbrella pole that interrupts any flow to the imagery.
At times Petersen departs from the picnic theme, giving us a pair of jazzy dancers, all angles and elbows against an acid-green background. In "Girl Arranging Hair," 2009, he presents a geometric figure, with slashing diagonals and angles in screaming tones of green, yellow and red.
Gentler in feeling is "Interior Figure With Sunlighted Still Life," 1997, done in gouache on paper. Here he tackles a composition that mixes the figure, the still life and the landscape seen out a window. Rendered in rich, atmospheric tones, it has something of the feeling of a Diebenkorn.
He offers two self- portraits, "The Artist," 1959, a tender semi-abstract image that makes one think of the delicate, suggestive color of early works by Hassell Smith, and "Self-Portrait With Reflections," a triple self-portrait with the artist at work reflected in a pair of mirrors. Both are compelling works on paper that exhibit a subtler color range than his typical acrylic canvasses.
It's great to have this show up at the same time as Gregory Kondos' retrospective at the Cocker Art Museum. Both are strong artists who have gone from their beginnings in the Sacramento-Davis area to national renown.
Petersen's works are included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C.
Chicano Air Force prints
"Taco y Otras Cosas," a show of prints by members of the Royal Chicano Air Force and others, will be on view in an outdoor exhibit at the Miller Park Complex, 2700 Front St., Sacramento, from 1 to 3 p.m. April 28. The complex is the new home of La Raza Galeria Posada, across the levee from the Sacramento River in a spot shaded by old oak trees. Information: (916) 446-5153.
What:"A Journey Through Time"
Where: Elliott Fouts Gallery, 1831 P St., Sacramento
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday- Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday- Sunday, through May 2.
Information: (916) 736-1429