Robert Straight, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert Straight, P-501, 2012, 40″ x 36″, acrylic, mixed media, wood panel, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert Straight and DoN met at Schmidt/Dean Gallery to talk about his one-person art show called Shadows and Reflections. Up in the sunlit gallery at 17th and Chestnut Streets is a collection of astonishingly brilliant paintings in traditional rectangular shapes and shaped wood artworks with translucent surfaces. DoN asked the artist how he would describe the art installation?

“The description is partly what I titled the show, as shadows and reflections, a lot of the work has repetition of shapes in it, so they’re kind of reflections or shadows. They’re not always on top of each other like this piece over here, these larger pieces are kind of stacked on top of each other and tuned and flipped in all different directions.

Hopefully, what I’m getting is a lot of play out of a single shape. The other thing I get out of the work, I guess, is how it starts out. It’s based on a kind of system of numbers.”

Robert Straight, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert Straight, P-489, 2012, 39.5″ x 31″acrylic, cheese cloth, laser cut paper, lulle, burlap, wood,  Schmidt/Dean Gallery

DoN asked how the work starts, is it sketched out first? What is the formula?

“They’re based on prime numbers. In my video I talk about this a little bit, I’m interested in something that’s absolute and, so, each of the shapes in here are either based on five points or seven points. Once I choose those points then it’s a matter of either drawing arcs or straight lines connecting the dots.

I play around with the shapes a lot and often times it does have to feel right to me. But, it at least gives me a starting point. And something nebulous to work with. That number thing is important just getting the work started but once it gets rolling I try to preserve it, not abandon it completely, but, it’s not always 100%”

Robert Straight, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert StraightP-485, 2012, 16″ x 13.5″, acrylic, knitted string, paper, plywood, (small painting), P-504, 2013, 53″ x 51″, acrylic, fabric, paper, wood, (large piece on right) Schmidt/Dean Gallery

“Regarding the mathematics, I’ve been using that for a while to make a lot of moves within my work because of that. So, I’ve never felt like it was a closed system that I’m working with but it does give me a place to start from. I think I’m interested in trying to, if this is possible these days, invent imagery and ways of working that aren’t familiar with people. You know, so that when they see the work, they have to really think about what they’re looking at. If it has a meaning? Or where it comes from. All of those kinds of things.”

Robert Straight, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert StraightSchmidt/Dean Gallery

The paintings have a sense of weight and lightness simultaneously, the complex wood structural supports looks heavy, the surfaces transformed into an exo-skin with layers of mesh and acrylic medium. They can hang how ever you want, the artist rearranged the art hanging on the high white walls while we talked about meta-mathical themes and significations of the surface of his paintings. Gallery owner Chris Schmidt described the artworks to DoN as being as light as kites.

Robert Straight, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert Straight, P-490, 2012, 32.75″ x 33″, acrylic, cheese cloth, tulle, burlap, laser cut paper, wood at Schmidt/Dean Gallery

“Ah, yes, especially these that are more transparent and people make that observation. I have gotten quite a bit of responses on this show. And it seems to me that people tend to be most interested in this work. And I think it’s because maybe it is more unfamiliar than rectangular paintings. I think the one thing that people can associate with these is that idea of a kite perhaps.”

How did you discover the translucent skin-like surface to paint on?

“In the late 70s, early 80s, I was doing these paintings that were huge, like 8 x 10′, and I built a platform that plastic stretched over. I was doing paintings where I apply acrylic medium and then paint on that, it would get hard and I’d pull off parts of it and in the end I would put cheese cloth over the whole thing and glue it on with acrylic medium and then lift the whole painting off of the platform. So, what was the first moves I made became the base of the painting and what I was seeing at the end of the process was actually the back of the painting.

It was kind of like reverse paintings on glass and that’s how these were done as well. The other thing that informed me was the idea of the structure of a painting. And even with these there’s a kind of system of how it’s built. I want to show that and let the viewer see the stretchers. The stretchers became kind of a crazy grid that in some ways reminds me of Chinese grills, there’s one called something like Fire and Ice, and it’s all these broken triangles. That’s actually the first thing that happened in these paintings.

I’d make the stretcher then the paint or the ink would come after that, the part that looks like a painting comes after. These are so simple, I just used a handsaw to cut them. The one thing I have access to is a table saw, so on the curved parts I cut notches in so the wood acts, even though it’s a half inch thick, flexible. Some of these are based on drawings like these Spirograph things. My Aunt, when I was young gave me this little machine called a Dipsy Doodle or something. My Aunt was also an artist , she’s given me some great ideas. But, I didn’t know it at the time.” – Robert Straight

Robert Straight, Schmidt/Dean Gallery

Robert Straight, Shadows and ReflectionsSchmidt/Dean Gallery1719 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19103, 215- 569-9433, gallery hours Tuesday – Saturday, 10:30 – 6:00.

Learn more about Robert Straight on DoNArTNeWs. See a video interview with the artist at

Written and photographed by DoN Brewer except where noted.

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