With a geological sense of time and a physicist’s conception of space, painter Robert Royhl’s work reveals the landscape. Some of those landscapes depict the observable, but some also portray lingering features of impacted elements or the tell-tale markings of supposed histories.
Stand in front of a Royhl work and fall into a world where past and future meet. Feel your way around his paintings, holding onto nothing and everything. Each visit with his work is a journey tracked by an inner true north. His tapered, honed visions are compressed and folded, sensed and unforeseen, peeled-off accounts told in a jangling resonance that push your mind through the encyclopedic documentation of one place, but of all time.
“Along The Indian Trail Ridge”
“My landscapes are inhabited by the visible and the tangible, but are haunted by things both invisible and no longer visible,” Royhl says. “In my recent work, I am expressing the presences and the absences in this world. My paintings work along the outer edges of the visible spectrum toward the unseen. As time passes, forms ripen, bloom and pass away. This world is a symphony of flowering pulses and holes. Matter and energy come together and separate. No form is static. All is in flux.”
Hanging off the wall, on the floor, leaning against the shelves, the cabinets, half-hidden behind partially finished pieces, Rohyl’s paintings whisper, sometimes shout to one another. This is a place of steady work.
Royhl sits cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by dozens of glass jars filled with pigment. His process involves several steps: an underwash, rabbit-skin glue, inks, egg tempera and chalk pastels. In front of him is his painting, on a board propped up on the top of a plastic pail.
“It’s the layering of different mediums that allow me to get the echoes I’m looking for,” Rohyl says, opening a plastic container of egg yolk. His palette is a thrift store plate placed upside down in the midst of his pigment-filled jars. Opening a jar of pulverized red, he shows me the color.
“I have ten different reds. Each pigment has a unique quality, and they do different things when mixed together.”
Usually blue mixed with red yields violet. Not so in egg tempera, one of the oldest, most versatile, and most durable methods of painting, dating back to prehistoric times.
Royhl takes a dab of vermillion powder with his wet brush, then swirls it on the back of the plate. He opens another jar of white and adds a dash to lighten up the coral color.
“Once I have a color I want, I put it everywhere in the painting I think it needs to go,” he says. “It’s a way of unifying the painting.”
He leans over the painting, close to his work, and ever so carefully draws a thin, thin line around a very small area. “I want the aura, the echo outside the image, the way geology creates layers. It’s a fulfilling, a reply to what’s underneath. Like seed forms maturing.”
He opens another jar, adds some yellow to round out the red.
“Now, I’ll go over the top and feed it in there. The first color is still there but now it’s a little warmer,” he says. His work is meticulous. Each small stroke deliberate. He rotates the painting a quarter turn and examines the colors to see where he might place a bit of this hue. “The changing of colors interests me. I’ll try this on top and you can see the subtle after-images.”
“World Without End”
Taking a small piece of bubble-gum pink pastel, he scratches a bit on top of the red he’s applied. Then with the tip of his finger he rubs the pastel into the egg and pigment paint.
“I recently started pushing pastel on top of the tempera, which created a looser painting style. It activates the pastel in a way pure pastel can’t. It makes the underpainting rich and mysterious, with very ethereal effects.”
Before Royhl gets to the painting part, before he opens a jar of pigment or breaks a fresh egg, he begins by drawing. He’ll go out to a place, a landscape with history, like the place that inspired the piece, “Along Indian Trail Ridge.”
During a residency with the U-Cross Foundation, Royhl had the opportunity to sketch the area of the Fetterman Massacre, one of the bloodiest fights between the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians and the U.S. Army, in 1866. All 81 soldiers were killed and the battle led to the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Powder River country.
He sat there and sketched for a few hours, then took that sketch back to the studio. He blew up the drawing and reworked the lines onto the canvas that later became “Along Indian Trail Ridge.”
“Lately, my big interest is with the first encounter between the Old World and the New World,” he says and wonders, “What was it like? What was the reality? What were they encountering back then? The landscape is the stage where these things took place.”
His paintings reveal the leftover theater: the popcorn kernels, crushed cups, the blood-soaked silt and composted flesh.
As with another piece, “Dark Sanctuary,” a result of sitting for hours in the Tucson desert, Rohyl doesn’t only sketch what was is in front of him. It’s not a still life drawing. It’s probably the opposite of a still life. More of a past life drawing with bits of here and now.
“I imagined the life of the place, who would pass through this place, animals, people, illegals, plant life, dust,” he says. “The landscape is filled with life – that’s the narrative – through time things evolve, and then fade away, transforming and changing. It’s kind of my idea of the Odyssey, which was a journey where all manner of beings were encountered from the Cyclops to Circe the Enchantress.”
He also wanted to include people at various stages of their life.
“Some of people are barely there, translucent, more spirit than body,” he says. “As I worked on the painting, a host of creatures appeared. There are birds, demonic animals, miniature figures in various states of transfiguration and other messengers. All of these beings are passing through this place between life and death, in a state of suspension between two planes of being.”
Looking at “Dark Sanctuary,” your eye moves with the colors, the darker hues pull you in further until you are connecting with each image, each figure. The shadows speak continuously with each other. There is an evolution of thought, a reaching of conclusions that only bring up more questions. And it is precisely this unending dialogue that Royhl’s work brings into play. There is nowhere for the mind to rest. Any stops are merely pauses.
Perhaps it is due to the many layers he uses, perhaps it is his method of using one painting as a jumping off point for the next one, but there is a feeling of continuity in his work. Like walking among the rocky outcrops off-trail, standing in the open with only the sky exposed before you, and yet you are not alone. Others have walked here, died here, fallen and regained their strength, loved and wished here. These are the places Royhl visits – again and again – sensing not only what is there, but the infinite space fulfilled with time, with all of time.
“Along the Kamogawa”
You can see more of Robert Royhl’s work on his website.
Michele Corriel writes for many local publications about art in the Gallatin Valley. You can find out more about her on her website.