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In a surprising departure, Roy Tomlinson is showing narrative paintings at SFMOMA’s Artists Gallery at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. In oil on large wood panels, he has taken the aftermath of winter fire as his symbolic motif. Loosely painted blacks are worked into a white field in calligraphic strokes. Viridian greens leak out from the blacks and orange-browns underlay and warm areas of the white field. Overall, the paintings have the values of a contrasty photographic print.

Tomlinson’s process begins with photographic projections onto the wood panels. Most of the paintings share high horizon lines and a perspective from below, yielding a flattened photographic space in which Tomlinson’s brush has free play. Because the painting space opens out radically to the viewer and because Tomlinson repeats motifs with slight variations in many of the paintings, there is a cinematic quality to the narrative moving along the gallery walls and projecting out into the viewers’ space. This recalls some of the principles of Suprematism and Constructivism.

In a prominent position in the gallery, Woods 2 is a painting of another kind of screen. In this case, not a cinematic screen but rather part of a traditional Chinese painting. In it, two trees frame a large, central, painterly white and atmospheric void. Painted in calligraphic strokes, the trees share the same spirit as trees in Chinese painting, generalized yet detailed, symbolic and evocative. Yet this painting, too, has the sense of cinematic mise-en-scene shared by the others in this timely exhibition.   

Although the emotional mood of the paintings is austere, the play of Tomlinson’s brush and the juiciness of the oil paint create a lushness that speaks of regeneration and hope.

The paintings at the Artists Gallery seem to have grown out of work Tomlinson exhibited at San Francisco Zen Center last year. These were small black and white photographs which emerged from a very elaborate process. Photographic images were printed, then painted and reprinted conflating painting, calligraphy and photography to poetic effect. It is invigorating to see a Bay Area artist taking so many conceptual risks.

Roy Tomlinson’s paintings remain on view at SFMOMA’s Artists Gallery through October 27.

- Gloria Tanchelev [Saturday, October 14th, 2006]

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