Robert Russell: Painting as an Art of Faith

February 18, 2022

Robert Russell “Teacups,

Robert Russell “Teacups," Miles McEnery Gallery

Reboot Network member and artist Robert Russell currently has an exhibition titled Teacups” at the Miles McEnery Gallery in New York City through March 12. See more about the exhibition here.

We were intrigued when Russell described the universal mystery of painting as “a ritualistic practice and an act of faith” and asked him to reflect on his process.

“Jewish ritual attempts to place something of the transcendent within our day to day humdrum. In times of grief (as I’ve heard IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous say), Jewish ritual proscribes a series of actions born from thousands of years of heartache. My painting practice does both of these things. It allows me the chance (ideally) to glimpse something beautiful or transcendent if I continue to show up for it.

“From the very first mark on the canvas, the whole process of painting is a kind of meandering. There might be some ideas or hopes for the outcome but the process is the point. Painting is, for me, a practice, and if a picture emerges that’s good or, even more mysteriously, that someone wants to buy, then all the better!,” Russell said.

An essay by Naomi Lev that accompanies the catalog of Russell’s exhibition describes how his paintings of teacups invoke that sense of memory and ritual, and how viewing them mirrors his artistic process

“He depicts fragility with such precision that one can envision their grandmother’s cupboard, the chimes of porcelain clinking in anticipation for a special occasion, and a tea kettle whistling away in the kitchen of a loved one’s home. Meticulously detailed single flowers with accompanying floral patterns and designs take shape in the larger than life teacups and saucers.

“When viewed from a distance, the teacups look three dimensional and exuberant, but as we zoom in and physically approach them, other qualities are revealed. Then, smooth brushstrokes blend with more expressive ones, and the parts of the form that seemed so realistic, become obscure and layered,” Lev said.

The history of painting and the importance of material are constants in Russell’s oeuvre and for him as he moves through his process, the object in the painting finally reveals itself “in some kind of a magical way,” Lev said.

“Painting has also been my daily ritual where sometimes I just go through the motions when nothing else seems to make any sense at all. Painting is a way for me to extract from the sadness, boredom, joy or even grief, something beautiful or meaningful  – hopefully both!” Russell said.

Robert Russell lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He completed his MFA at The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2006. Russell earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Through the use of a frequently subdued color palette, Robert Russell’s representational paintings explore concepts of identity, memory, desire and authenticity. Often self-referential in nature, existential questions regarding the role of an image and the process of memory and imagination arise. Themes include (among others) art books, portraits of Robert Russell that are not the artist, clouds, pigs, children and most recently teacups. With his most recent exhibition Teacups, Russell both holds on to his past and expands on it. His previous two exhibitions “Book Paintings and Revisits” explored the visual tropes of the artist monograph and continued his conceptual interest in authority, authenticity, and iconography. Recent solo exhibitions include Miles McEnery Gallery, Anat Ebgi Gallery, The Cabin LA, LA><ART (Los Angeles), François Ghebaly Gallery (LA), Osmos (New York, NY) and Burrard Arts Foundation (Vancouver, BC Canada) where he was also an artist in residence. He has been included in numerous group shows in Los Angeles including Roberts and Tilton Gallery, Material Press MOCA LA and M+B Gallery.