Square Cylinder Review: Robert Ortbal

Read the original article from Square Cylinder by Julia Couzens.

Spiky, bulbous, dumb, and perverse, Robert Ortbal’s sculptures exist in a realm between painting and sculpture.  Ambitious in scope, their impact comes from feeling, and from the surprisingly sensual nature of the commonplace materials of which they are made. Skillfully transformed cardboard and plaster give rise to associations with the complexities of the culture versus nature dichotomy and the collapse of these distinctions. Irregular, nonchalant, and larger than themselves, Ortbal’s aberrant objects are connotative. They are objects possessing myriad references such as oceanic flora, Gehry-esque architectural models, and Petri dish experiments gone seriously awry.

Working with a lexicon of primarily geometric shapes drawn from his go-to materials, Ortbal questions and reinvents them using simple methods of stacking, folding, cutting, and painting. While employing particular tropes, his work invites interpretation and re-interpretation. They are not representative nor descriptive but referential, and by working and reworking his inventory of forms, he expands their meaning and abstract physicality.
Ortbal circumvents staid conventional installations of sculpture set on individual pedestals dotted around the gallery.  He presents a suite of small-to medium- sized objects arrayed on a central structure of stacked and layered planks of wood and Styrofoam. There is no primary viewpoint to the cluster as a whole or to individual pieces.  Every perspective yields an elusively suggestive reading. And referring to the title of his show, the relationships between the objects appear to be arbitrary, randomly plunked down like players in a game of musical chairs.

Both beautiful and ugly, Rumors of Emptiness, III (2014) and Rumors of Emptiness V (2015) are modestly scaled cardboard conglomerates of radiating and sprouting geometric tubes.  The outside surfaces are covered with crude applications of resin, plaster, and paint, and their absence of formal grace and skill serve to magnify their seductively flocked interiors.  The light-sucking texture of the flocking possesses a beckoning pull reminiscent of Lee Bontecou’s fierce, velvet-lined sculptures from 1959 and early 1960’s.
The tumescent, biomorphic forms of Midnight andStill Warm also embody the yin/yang attraction of the repugnant and the compelling.  Sardonically humorous, the bulbous globules of foam frosted with plaster, resin, flock and paint suggest emergent, mutant spawn.  Ominously fascinating, they hold our gaze and provocatively question the complex issues of the real versus fake and our cultural obsession with the “new and improved.”
But it’s the flat-footed, “unmade” cement-on-wood paintings, Thought Bubble and Inside Out, that speak to the heart of Ortbal’s practice.  These pieces suggest isolated artifacts from the studio floor, the residue of his overtly directed processes.  Elegant, minimal and unprepossessing, they turn our attention to texture, shape, and line  — and most importantly, like the art of Richard Tuttle, to what can be enough.  Both object and painting, these silhouettes of line or imperfect triangles of raw wood are surrounded by sluice-y pours of crusty gray cement. They are poetic, functioning like words or phrases — resonant forms charged with the potency of memory.


Where: JayJay, 5520 Elvas Ave., Sacramento

When: Through October 24, 2015. Wednesday-Saturday

Cost: Free


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