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Roland Gebhardt: The Incisionary Construction of Space and the Void as Imaginary

Roland Gebhardt: The Incisionary Construction of Space and the Void as Imaginary

Chunbum Park

July 10, 2023

When someone trains to become an artist, s/he or they are given a set of biases. S/he or they are told that light carries information and must come forward in space, while darkness lacks such information and must recede back into space. The person is also made to believe that the positive space positions the subject and the foreground, while the negative space carries the background. At a certain point, however, a reversal of relationships occurs in what s/he or they observe and conceive. It is a reversal of highlight to shadow, foreground to background, and positive to negative space, which breaks the rigid associations and hierarchies in how one perceives and understands the visual world around oneself. Roland Gebhardt (Born 1939, Suriname) has dedicated a lifetime honing a practice wrought from this paradigm shift, and the presence of the void is the basis of Gebhardt’s solo exhibition at David Richard Gallery, titled “Framing Perceptual Illusions: A series of wall sculptures examines presence, absence, and voids.” The viewer is presented with white, minimalistic geometric constructions that play with the concept of information in terms of presence versus absence and the real versus the imaginary.

Gebhardt pioneered minimal sculptural works in the early 1960s when he initially played with the concept of in-between spaces that result from the interaction of shapes. Subsequently, the artist began to make precise surgical incisions in the form of a long line or edge of a plane into objects to create “linear voids” that he equates to drawings. Gebhardt continued this trajectory by positioning two adjacent objects with incisions that align with one another to create a kind of communication or interaction. The newer body of works, which are referred to as “Connecting Voids” in his upcoming book, Roland Gebhardt: Pivotal Pieces1, are based on the variation upon variation of the void, changing it into the “ambient void” (which played with the concept of shared, ambient space between structures) and “facets” (which arranged and cut objects along an abstract linear boundary). Gebhardt has arrived at the point of exhibiting masterful works that only resulted from his dedication to a decades-long career.

Gebhardt has been working on the edge of a long tradition of experimental avant-garde art, building on the legacies and lessons of Russian Suprematism, Conceptualism, and Minimalism. When one looks at Gebhardt’s sculpture and how the void is a geometrically abstract tool that flips the positive and negative spaces, s/he or they are reminded of El Lissitzky’s Suprematist compositions in painting that also created similar incisions with the use of planes of highlights or shadows onto the planes or shapes of inverse values. The way Gebhardt has worked with a fabricator to realize this body of work recalls Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt’s instruction and fabrication-based art. And lastly, the Minimalist aesthetics embodied in this current series is obvious, although many of Gebhardt’s other works have post-Minimalist qualities of deviating from pure formalism and rather utilizing organic objects (such as food and rocks) that entail and highlight the psychical and physical aspects.

At first glance, one sees sculptural objects that mostly leave behind cultural, social, and personal values or associations. The white geometric surface initially suggests that these sculptures exist on an ideal plane of abstract objects, and the artist is only concerned with the purity of form through an intellectual exercise. Yet perhaps, just as people had mistakenly believed that the Greco-Roman sculptures were white objects without any colors, Gebhardt’s work has more to be revealed. Gebhardt’s works have a strong sense of abstract, otherworldly qualities due to their monochrome nature and the precision of their construction. It is as if Gebhardt’s works are conveying a kind of quintessential or fundamental formula or equation for visual form and perception in a scientific laboratory. (This is why colors would become an unnecessary distraction and why the works are purely monochrome in white.) Being works of art, the sculptures have no practical utility, yet they provide the basis on which the viewer can think about and imagine the absence or the void that becomes a form of presence. What the viewer experiences is not just the result of the human brain’s tendency to recognize patterns. The work provides a philosophical experience for the viewer to really consider what or who becomes absent in a situation or environment and how their absence provides an inverse sense of presence. This is the reversal of relations in which, to put it in mathematical terms, a zero or a nothing becomes a negative something relative to a positive integer, or possibly we are seeing the manifestation of the imaginary numbers in relation to the real numbers. The viewer completes the work by perceiving the voids as something substantial or alive, incurring an activity in terms of abstract thought or association.

These voids – these imaginary substances – may be the ghosts of Gebhardt’s lost friends or family members or those wrongly erased from history. Perhaps these pathways are the ways through which ghosts travel through the hidden dimensions of space. Their presence is felt by their absence. It takes a long time for one to observe and feel the presence of these ghosts who may reside in these voids. They are not drawn out like a typical portrait in the form of positive space. They reside and traverse in the negative space around the positive space that is the surrounding architecture that is the sculpture. The suggestion or metaphor conveys a possible link between Gebhardt’s Minimalist and Conceptualist work and spirituality. Just as Agnes Martin sought out the profound spiritual significance in the light and presence through painting, Roland Gebhardt seeks a similar substance in the absence of sculptural form.

It is quite possible that Gebhardt’s framed structures, clad in white, take a religious significance as the void becomes a kind of presence just as God is an observer who exists in the fourth dimension, being everywhere in the third dimension, including the void, and silent. As Elie Wiesel observed, God is silent during the Holocaust and other terrible times of human history, when no one saw the wrath of God striking the evildoers. God was and is silent, and this silence was deafening. And this silence may equate to the void as well. No one could see the lightning bolt of justice striking the evil forces, and nothing could bring the voids in Gebhardt’s sculptural works to their completion and closure except for the human imagination.

1: Kay, Sandra L. “Roland Gebhardt: Pivotal Pieces.” Bersaba Publishing. 2023

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