Rachel Roske’s Mysterious Monochrome Paintings and Studies of Light and Shadow

The work of Rachel Roske bounds two separate but closely related fields of abstraction, developed in the late 20th century and continuing into the early decades of the new millennium. 

On the one hand, Roske produces careful and precise photorealistic drawings on canvas made from the passage of light and shadow across their surfaces. On the other, she creates equally precise monochrome paintings, sometimes using multiple panels and the adornment of small lines of thread. Both reductivist modes use simple imagery, but contain complicated and interwoven ideas.

A preoccupation for all of Roske’s work is the interaction of light in space. For her drawings on canvas, the artist reproduces the patterns of light cast across the surface, using a kind of cucoloris—a shadow-making scrim—or various materials. In some paintings, the object casting the shadow is clear: a chair or a fan. In other works, the invention of the forms is more opaque and mysterious. In Celica (2014), a dense gray field is interrupted at the top and bottom by semi-parallel bands of bouncing light. The parabolas of non-pigmented material bounce to the right in an almost conical arc. Only Just (2013) shows dappling semi-circles of illumination, the edges unfocused and overlapping in subtly varied tones of off-white.

Roske exhibits an extreme control, varying the sharpness of her mark-making to depict with trompe l’oeil accuracy the interaction of light and darkness. Moonlighter (2011) is an excellent example of this: as a tower-like shadow is canted over the canvas, it comes into crisp focus at the left. At its top, about 2/3 up the drawing, it diffuses into soft evaporation.

In her oil paintings, such as Adrian P (2009) and Fracture (2010), Roske plays with sharp lines of division. In the former artwork, she stacks three equal-sized panels into a vertical rectangle with two horizontal divisions. The strategy resembles the early work of Brice Marden, whose multi-panel monochrome paintings reduced the division of pictorial space to the barest minimum. In the latter painting, Roske divides the surface of a yellow trapezoid with four intersecting lines made with thread. Similar to work by Marden’s peer, Robert Mangold, Roske’s lines seem to arbitrarily measure and divide the plane of the painting, creating optical tricks and a suggestion of visual depth. In all of her work, Roske challenges the eye and the mind, two vital organs linked by simple gestures to the artist’s hand.

—Stephen Dillon

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