Temple of Small Wishes by Carroll Swenson-Roberts

George O’Keefe once painted her frame, the only way to ensure that it won’t be thrown away and replaced by an exorbitant decorative one. Carroll Swenson-Roberts has a better idea. In her new body of work – Temple of Small Wishes, currently shown at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas, a wood frame is both the device and the content, unified through an architectural design.

“I was inspired by Limboug Brothers’ Book of Days,” Roberts recalled, “but also I am tired of framing. You got to do that for works on paper.” For the past decades, paper has been Roberts’ main medium. In making the first of the current series –“Temple of Growing Up,” Roberts decided to create a shape that resembles the architecture of medieval temples, with colonnaded symmetry centered with a tall tower. She found it rather challenging to mount the paper onto a board cut in the same mold. “What if I just paint on wood itself?”

Liberated from the chore of cutting and pasting paper, Roberts enjoys new perspectives discovered in both materials and processes. Mark Quintana, an artist working in the Continental Gin studio complex, helped Roberts translate her temple design into individual wood panels. Most panels are as thick as 3 inches. Roberts complements borders with patterns either representational or purely decorative. If the frieze in a real temple is for solemnity, Roberts supplies hers with whimsical characters. The patterns climb up and down four sides, spiraling, spreading and flexing like organic being. They also, secretly, force viewers to get up close, to follow the storyline from the main picture to the periphery.

That’s exactly what Roberts wants. An average visitor spends seven seconds looking at an art work in a museum. Roberts would like to hold their interest a little longer. The novel architectural dual-object composition helps. At least for me, it sets out a new set of visual vocabulary — A pictorial dialog by repurposing an iconographic design. Then, inevitably, one must twist the head to read through borders, sometimes, half hidden in the narrow opening between the two panels. And just like that, she steals another 30 seconds.

Roberts effortlessly transfers her skills in paper to wood. All works bear the hallmark of her style. In addition to ink, gouache, acrylic, and color pencils, she applies house paint for large background areas. In the past, the rich-hued color schemes has always tilted Roberts’ narratives toward the edge of surrealism; but in this series, the smooth flatness of wood lends an airiness in expressive colors. The temples, illuminated in lavish pink or blue light, feel less mysterious and cozier. Not surprisingly, the figures residing in these temples look relaxed as if home.

“Temple of Small Wishes” touch the commonality of ordinary life. We often forget the pleasure derived from meeting our basic needs. We take them for granted. But as trivial as shaving, indoor plumbing or comfortable napping, it is the universal desires all humans share. For some, they are the luxury of obliviousness. For others, they are out of reach. Roberts neither comments nor criticizes. Here, she simply paints the joy and enshrines such happiness so we all can embrace.

“Temple of Small Wishes”, curated by Ro2Art gallery, is on view at Magnolia Theater until April 19, 2017.

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