IN a competitive setting such as a commercial gallery or even a museum, the larger a work of art the more likely it is to attract attention. A large work implies that the artist considers painting or sculpture to have a public function, that is, that the work's ultimate destination would need the space of corporate headquarters, government buildings, museums, or mansions. But not all artists so declare themselves. Artist Reba Rottenberg paints with a personal destination in view. Most of her paintings are of a comfortable size - being a little over 3 feet by 29 inches - to hang on the walls of an apartment or house. Her method is also more personal.
She writes: ``I begin with pouring color on the paper. I look at it, see what's there, play with it, and see what I can build up from what's there. Invariably, something comes out of the interaction between me and the paper, the intertwining of those colors - an image.... Before I know it, something happens.''
At this point, she adds more paint, sometimes impasto with brush, palette knife, or fingers. She continues, ``In this process, I have to work by letting go.... I feel you're more there when you're not there. You're not in control. The controlling happens by who you are. I don't work physically that much. I live it.''
The results of this spontaneous dialogue are works that are expressionist with the color being a brighter, subtler version of Fauve. One might place her paintings between Marc Chagall and Gustave Klimt. They have something of the fantasy quality of Chagall and the brilliance of Klimt without the latter's sharpness.
As the two heads of ``Boaz and Ruth'' took shape she felt that they could be no other than those admirable Biblical characters. Colorful stripes on Boaz's headcovering give the painting its Mideastern look. Her Ruth is strong and spare, a woman who can resolutely leave her native country, friends, and family to accompany her mother-in-law to a strange land with a different religion and to care for her there.
Other paintings like ``Zebra'' and ``Red Plume'' have titles which puzzle and charm. In the first there is a little toy zebra at the bottom of the piece next to the child. Rottenberg concedes that the large head of the man with the woman's profile superimposed upon it might have evolved from memories of her parents. The child figure may be herself at the age when she felt outside her parents' intense relationship. But then she adds that the man might be a well-remembered friend and the woman, herself.
As with Chagall's paintings, it does not seem important to know exactly what the images represent; they speak to viewers in different ways. ``Red Plume'' appears more whimsical and perhaps less ambiguous. Coloristically it pulls out all stops to give us a jaunty stylized figure which one accepts as a child with a doll. But there may be a good deal more in the painting. Do the black X marks between the child's eyes suggest looking through the barbed wire of a concentration camp?
The unusual, bright but slightly dissonant color combinations are the first attraction to Reba Rottenberg's paintings. The warmly evocative feeling which pervades them leaves the viewer with the contentment that an unfamiliar but pleasing piece of music engenders.