Andrew Roberts-Gray gets a hand from Anderson Ranch
August 11, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Over the last year or so, Andrew Roberts-Gray had a breakthrough in his painting. This was a major event for Robert-Gray, a 54-year-old Glenwood Springs resident who has been making art his entire adult life. Roberts-Gray, who began to get frustrated with his creative efforts some three years ago, now wakes up each day anxious to paint and see what comes out. He is in talks to be represented by the Robischon Gallery, which has a 35-year history in Denver and is probably the city’s most prominent art gallery. The breakthrough seems to have affected his entire outlook, as an artist and beyond: “Now, the doors are open,” he said. “Even if I go no further, I’ve made this transition out of myself, in my education, my relationship to the art world.”
For all the transformation he has gone through, though, Roberts-Gray doesn’t see this story as being about himself. He thinks of it as a tale of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. “The breakthrough – it’s the power of the Ranch. It really is. That’s how I see it,” he said.
Roberts-Gray, who graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute and did post-grad work at the University of Wisconsin, has for nearly two decades had a vision for what he wanted art to achieve in his art – an abstract examination of the interplay between the natural world and the technological one. He was reasonably successful, scoring a show at the local Harvey/Meadows Gallery. But he also increasingly felt there was a gap between his vision and the way it was executed.
“Probably three years ago, I got really frustrated with what I was doing,” he said. “I experimented; it wasn’t working. There was a break between what my work expressed and what I thought I could express about the ideas I wanted to talk about. The paintings didn’t have the depth, the spontaneity, the power. The ideas were good, but there was a disconnect.”
A year ago, a friend, the fellow local artist Bayard Hollins, suggested Roberts-Gray take a week-long workshop at Anderson Ranch with Brad Kahlhamer, an A-list New York painter. “His work was really expressionistic and I said, ‘Maybe this would be good. My work was intellectual, maybe on the conservative side,” Roberts-Gray said.
On the first day of the workshop, Kahlhamer brusquely instructed Roberts-Gray to reconsider his choice of tools. “He said, ‘What are you doing? Get a bigger brush,'” Roberts-Gray recalled. “He was saying, that kind of approach, that precision, just pissed him off, I think. He gave me the biggest brush he had.”
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The adjustment began to work instantly. Roberts-Gray began working faster, more expressionistically. “It was a big fight for me,” he said. “I’d been doing things a certain way, and to stop a process that’s been built up over some years … .”
The following day, Kahlhamer praised Roberts-Gray – or at least, one tiny bit of his work. “He pointed at one square inch and said, ‘You see that?’ That was all. Then he walked away,” Roberts-Gray recalled. “At the end of the say, he came over and just nodded his head – there’d been progress. I felt something was happening, really substantial. I was still using this core of ideas – landscape, technology, circuit boards. But I was putting them together in a way that was less intellectual.”
The next day, Roberts-Gray finished “Abstraction #2,” an oil on canvas which Kahlhamer praised for integrating its parts and ideas. “It just coalesced. It was more direct, more meaningful,” Roberts-Gray said. “And it was obvious. People would come by and look and say, That’s interesting.”
Roberts-Gray was pleased enough with the piece to donate it to Anderson Ranch for its Annual Art Auction. The organization’s main fundraising event, the Auction is set for Saturday, Aug. 13, at the Ranch’s campus in Snowmass Village. The day opens at 11:30 a.m. with a silent auction, a preview of the live auction, and a community picnic lunch. The live auction begins at 2 p.m. Roberts-Gray’s “Abstraction #2” is featured in the silent auction; among the artists whose work is up for bidding in the live auction are Damien Hirst, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Staskevetch, James Surls and more.
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Roberts-Gray was raised in Livermore, Calif. As a kid, he had an older friend who introduced him to the world of art and music, including the rock ‘n’ roll scene that was taking place some 20 miles west in San Francisco. After training at the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of Wisconsin, he headed to New York City in 1986 and began making movie-inspired prints. “They had more to do with exploring art-making and what was popular than it had to do with me,” he said. After visiting Olana, the estate of the landscape painter Frederic Church, he turned to plein air painting. “No one would do that. It was anti-New York. It was anti-art.”
In the early ’90s, Roberts-Gray and his wife Annette, also an artist, left New York for Glenwood Springs, where Annette’s mother lived. On the ride out of the city, he took note of the landscape, and how the hand of man – construction, road – intruded on it. In his Colorado studio, he had landscape paintings next to a circuit board, and the juxtaposition inspired him to create a body of work that was distinctive – landscapes marred by electronic circuitry – but ultimately not satisfying.
“They were very intellectual paintings, I realize now,” he said. “They were successful in a way. But they didn’t communicate the idea of man and nature directly enough or powerfully enough.”
The workshop with Kahlhamer was the beginning of shaking away those doldrums. Over that week Roberts-Gray ping-ponged between over-thinking his work, starting over, believing he had made breakthroughs, returning to old habits. By the middle of the week, he had gotten to the point of wiping away nearly an entire painting. What was left, he said, was “this ghost of what I had done – both the technological things and the landscape. And right then I knew it was significant. It was totally different, but embodied all these things I’d been working on for years – but more directly.”
When Barbara Bloemink, the executive director of Anderson Ranch, came through the studio, she was impressed. Roberts-Gray got a further boost from the Ranch this past January, when he participated in a three-week immersive workshop that yielded the largest piece he had ever done, the 6-foot by 8-foot “Abstraction #20,” and also valuable input from his fellow artists, who encouraged him to continue to refine his vision. After that workshop, Paul Collins, the former director of the Ranch’s painting department, offered Roberts-Gray a studio to use for a five-week period, no charge.
“I think they recognized that I was moving, and it was a generous gesture on Paul’s and Barbara’s part,” Roberts-Gray said.
In June, Roberts-Gray took another workshop, Portfolio Review, with Gary Simmons, that focused on the conceptual basis of the work. “He hates landscape painting, as it turns out, and that was good,” Roberts-Gray said. “Because our discussions questioned each element of my arguments, without judging them. He just questioned: How did they add up? At the end of the class, I didn’t change anything, but I had a deeper understanding of what I was trying to do and how to do it.”
During the five-week of studio use, Roberts-Gray completed nine paintings, and Anderson Ranch gave him a prominent opportunity to present the art: In late July, during the Ranch’s national council meetings, Roberts-Gray showed a series of his work at the Ranch for some of the organization’s most prominent supporters.
The interactions with Anderson Ranch have left Roberts-Gray in a place of unbounded optimism. He has completed 32 paintings in his recent burst, and says he can see them in a museum.
“I knew my work, along the way, was mediocre. There were times I thought I’d never make it. Some artists don’t,” he said. “But I finally achieved this thing that I know is significant. I was able to transcend my education, my roots, my proclivities, all the art zeitgeist things that get imposed in your head.”
Roberts-Gray says he hasn’t been alone in that transformation.
“The Ranch is an environment for experimentation, and it’s conditioned by the people who run the place and it has an amazing effect on you,” he said. “It’s a really supportive environment. People like Doug Casebeer [the longtime director of the Ranch’s ceramics and sculpture program] – we’ve hardly ever talked about my work. But I just feel like he supports me.
“I’m like the poster child for what’s supposed to happen there.”