Waywardness, humor, colors that zing

'The Boathouse, East Anglia' Roger Kizik's "The Boathouse, East Anglia" (1998) at the New Bedford Art Museum. (Courtesy of New Bedford Art Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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NEW BEDFORD - Call me particular, but colored toilet paper is not my thing. I just don’t like the idea. So it’s strange for me to have to report that a blue toilet roll is the subject of one of the most arresting paintings I’ve seen anywhere in months.

The work is in Roger Kizik’s retrospective “Disparate Dialogue,’’ a crazy, hyperventilating, intensely likable show at the New Bedford Art Museum. Kizik is based in Dartmouth, has been a notable presence on the New England art scene for more than 30 years, and - not quite incidentally - worked for many years as a preparator at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum. That collection’s terrific holdings in postwar abstraction and Pop Art clearly left an indelible mark.

“Roll,’’ as it’s called, is a big painting, and it’s perfectly square: 30 inches by 30 inches. The toilet roll in question rests on top of a metal toilet roll holder, to which the cardboard cylinder from the previous roll is still attached. There’s nothing else in the picture. What we see is essentially just a blue cylindrical shape casting a shadow against a light-orange ground.

Those colors, blue on apricot, may not suggest the best of taste in interior decorating terms, but they sure do zing. That’s part of the pleasure. But so is the positioning of the roll on top of the holder.

It’s odd, isn’t it? After all, a robustly proportioned and well-executed painting like this should surely, if it’s of a thing, be of an important thing. But this thing, besides being a humble toilet roll, suggests states of mind that seem at odds with propriety, deliberation, and other correlatives of “importance.’’ Whoever put it there (cue huffing and puffing) was clearly too lazy or absent-minded to remove the old, empty tube and put the new roll in its proper place.

How we think of such everyday failures, and how we reconcile them with the kind of refined aesthetic pleasure afforded by Kizik’s humming colors and deft paint handling, is up to us. But Kizik has - with a levity, skill, and conviction it’s hard not to admire - at least put the question before us. I like him for it.

The rest of this rollicking, rambunctious show, which covers almost 40 years of Kizik’s art-making, veers between representational imagery and abstraction, but never loses its sense of humor.

I didn’t like all of it. In fact, if I’m honest, I liked about half of it. When Kizik dabbles in abstraction, the results tend to be frictionless. There’s a lot of nifty technique at work, but the result is too often just a barrage of patterns, more or less successfully made to cohere. That said, his large 1978 painting “Release’’ is as ambitious, as wild, and yet as satisfyingly coherent as any abstract painting I’ve seen in years.

Kizik’s representational paintings, which depict South Coast houses, harbors, and boats in an idiom that is one part Edward Hopper to two parts David Hockney, are more endearing. But here again, there’s something a bit dilettantish about them: You look, admire, and move on, still on the lookout for something that really hits the mark; a definitive statement of artistic intent.

Perhaps the explanation lies with the fact that this show has been sourced primarily from Kizik’s own collection. If a more concerted effort had been made to borrow all the very best things Kizik has done over four decades, the results would no doubt have been different.

And yet, despite my reservations, I nevertheless found something about this show irresistible. It is shambolic yet intimate, giving us a very real sense of Kizik’s restlessness, his humor, his waywardness, and his considerable natural talent. (As if to accentuate the sense of privileged access, one work is displayed on an easel).

Endearingly, the curator, David B. Boyce, has kicked things off with a room that not only includes early paintings like “Roll,’’ but a wall of terrific watercolor studies (they’re like photographic snapshots brought quiveringly to life), and another wall dedicated to “The Disappeared - Work Lost, Destroyed, or Unavailable for Viewing.’’ This comes in the form of photographs of gallery installations from the past, among them some spectacular sculptural confections. It’s a great way to rouse our curiosity about what’s ahead.

Later on in the show is a wonderful wall sculpture from 1985. Called “Lone Pine,’’ it’s a kind of peninsula of brightly colored paint made exclusively from thick accretions of acrylic. It has a lusciousness and a bold material presence that briefly subordinates the sense of sight to imagined ecstasies of taste, smell, and touch.

In a different vein, scattered throughout the show are a series of representational works that are part wall sculpture, part shaped canvas. Each depicts a book. It might be an art book (on, say, Giorgio Morandi or Alex Katz), a book on sailing, George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,’’ or a tourist guide to Paris. It might be open at a particular page, frozen in a moment when the pages are billowing in a breeze, or shown with a foldout map extending off to the side.

The conceit is lovely. In each case, Kizik combines the gorgeous intimacy of favorite books as they appear in paintings by the likes of Manet or Bonnard with the sculptural vigor and heft of Pop Art. It’s a surprising combination, but guess what? It works.

There are other paintings here that, amusingly, seem about as bad as painting gets. “Souvenir, Venezia,’’ for instance, sets a seashell and a winged lion (representing Venice) against a vile yellow sky and desultory clouds. The effect is not only dismal, it’s inexplicably dismal.

But somehow, works like this didn’t offend me. They reminded me that some kinds of talent have a swashbuckling, visceral quality that is as uneven as it is thrilling, that thrive precisely because they are prepared to risk backfiring.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

DISPARATE DIALOGUE: A Roger Kizik Retrospective At: New Bedford Art Museum, New Bedford, through Feb. 21, 508-961-3072,