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Art Review : Herman's Enormous, Cool Works

November 26, 1986|ROBERT McDONALD

SAN DIEGO — He is one of the most highly respected younger artists now working in Los Angeles. His vision is mature, his style is distinctive, and his works are memorable. The source of their strengths, however, remains a mystery. But that is perhaps as it should be.

Roger Herman comes from the Saarland, an industrial area disputed for many years by France and Germany, now a part of the German Federal Republic. His very name reflects those two national influences. It would be tempting as well to identify French and German painting traditions in his works, but they seem to be simply international.

Herman came late to art after he had already studied law and philosophy. When he did, however, he attended West Germany's most distinguished art school, the Kunstakademie in Karlsruhe. Upon graduation in 1976, he moved to San Francisco, a city comfortable for Europeans. Since 1981, however, he has lived and worked in Los Angeles, a good place for an artist to be because it appears destined within a generation or two to become the next capital of world art.

A few years ago, Herman gained critical recognition for his rough, heroically scaled figurative paintings. He also, in the tradition of the German Expressionists early in this century, made woodcuts. His, however, were humongous, as large as 9 by 5 feet.

It was a common observation that he put oil paint onto canvas with the same muscular enthusiasm with which he gouged his wood matrices.

The sources of his images were as personal as photographs of his deceased parents, as ubiquitous as the mass media and as recondite as art history.

Despite their ostensible expressionism, Herman's works did not resonate with romantic Sturm und Drang. They evinced, rather, a puzzling lack of passion. They were not hot, but cool.

Herman's new works at the Patty Aande Gallery (660 9th Ave.) push this dispassion even further through the simple option of abandoning the human figure for architecture. His new images are blunt and bland, the facades of structures that could be found in Karlsruhe, Los Angeles or Hong Kong.

Eight of the paintings have as a subject a multistory apartment building with projecting rectangular balconies. They could represent the expensive residences of the world's shakers and movers . . . or subsidized housing for low-income workers.

The image, however, really doesn't matter. Its importance is as an occasion for the artist to paint.

The immediately perceptible differences among seven of the eight are variations of only a few inches in scale. One mammoth canvas with the same image, however, measures 10 by 7 feet.

The expectation that the repetitiveness and anonymity of these untitled, chalky black-and-white paintings would be off-putting fizzles. They grab the attention aggressively, and they hold it.

Viewed up close, the images dissolve into black-and-white jagged abstractions engaged in a vertiginous interplay of vertical and diagonal compositional thrusts. Intimacy reveals barely perceptible color variations in the underpainting, including yellow, chartreuse, red, blue and pea soup green, which affects the reflection of light from the turgid surfaces.

Monet's Rouen cathedral and haystack series are obvious antecedents. The French artist was, however, interested in the effects of natural light and its replicability in oil pigment. Herman is interested in the manipulation of artificial light and our responses to it.

The expressiveness of the paint application is controlled, not unfettered. The muscularity here is that of the gymnasium and playing field, not the battlefield. In their agonistic relationship, intelligence controls passion, but passion is the energy of the intelligence.

Paintings of several parking structures evince the same qualities, although their larger scale lends them a closer resemblance to classic abstract expressionist paintings, especially those of Franz Kline.

These works are problematical, but all art of any merit is.

The exhibition continues through Dec. 6.

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