Whitehot Magazine

Rob Strati: Fragments at Fremin Gallery

Rob Strati, Fragmented in Blue with Temple, 2024. Broken plate, ink on paper, 37" x 37" x 2.5"


By STEPHEN WOZNIAK April 9, 2024

Please note that while the exhibition Fragments includes new art by Rob Strati and Johannes Nielsen, this review only covers the work of Rob Strati. 

After I move around the room and stop to look at a piece in artist Rob Strati’s new exhibition, Fragments, I can’t help but wonder what happened. Was it an accident or an argument? Was it fault-free or the result of caustic conflict? Were there steaming green peas rolling off the rim as it dropped to the ground, or was it clean-as-a-whistle, pulled from the cabinet and flung from the fingers? You see, Strati’s secondary medium is porcelain. Fine-dining china plates, to be exact. Unlike the various cracked shards covered in goopy impasto oil paint that merely make up the ground of some hulking signature figurative works by, say, seasoned art star Julian Schnabel, Strati sees the classic imagery on the face of his china plate artworks as vital fractured narratives that require reevaluation and revision. With pen in hand, he opens the geometric monocolor motifs that ring the periphery of his shattered wares, extending line and form, providing a pathway for figures, flora and fauna to journey beyond their original houseware habitat.  

Like China’s fine porcelain made hundreds of years ago for its aristocracy, later exported to Europe and today used at evening meals throughout the world, Strati’s broken dishes are filled with symbolism. The 14th-century, Islamic-influenced, blue-hued imagery used in decorating fine porcelain dinnerware typically featured animals: fish for prosperity, deer for honor, cranes for longevity and so on. The plates, bowls and cups didn’t just hold your evening dinner or keep tea hot, they told a story or, at least, provided a panoply of important characters—almost like social media memes of today—that help define our enlightened moments and personal aspirations. Later styles, produced between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries seen in Strati’s work, often show us seemingly pleasant and generally benign people, pagodas, rivers and blossoming trees. That’s where the artist’s contemporary update, disruption and abstract commentary come into play.

One subtle piece that piqued my interest was the artist’s Fragmented in Blue with Temple. It features almost half of a classic blue-and-white china plate, itself broken in half. From this remnant’s edge, Strati draws outward with blue-black ink to loosen—but also retain—the plate’s original style of imagery and patterns. We’re treated to songbirds in flight, water flowing under bridges and the titular temple. The water, inked on the work’s paper, also cascades off the plate’s broken edge, passes fishermen reeling in the day’s catch, and finally lands where a wizened thinker stands on a tiny land mass, perhaps contemplating the heavens above or nearby nature. As I look more carefully, I also see sketched spiral patterns discretely separated from the source plate imagery, whirling about, expanding the little universe Strati has unfurled. Other elements—entryways to the temple, cherry blossoms, fencing and posts—also seem to either splinter off into the distance or find a new life of their own on the bare white paper.

What can we make of this? Strati seems to ask us to review the pieces that make up a narrative puzzle from whence they came. Fragmented in Blue with Temple’s architectural center point may represent a spiritual haven, a bastion of civilization or even a ruling class. It’s hard to tell. But Strati’s work seems to say that a house has fallen, power has been upended and perhaps that our spiritual practice must change as we move beyond the confines of someone else’s narrative and authority in order to create our own.

The Setting, 2024. Broken plate, ink on paper, 37" x 37" x 2.5"

A remarkable piece in the show is Strati’s red and white The Setting. Anchored by four sets of broken plates, this piece loosely creates a crucifix, replete with small splats, marks and ruddy drips that when viewed a few yards away come across as sacrificial blood. As I zero in on the intricately drawn artwork, I see flowers, ocean spray and helix formations—primary earthen building-block elements in their own way. The central hand-drawn image between the left and right plate pieces is a bridge interrupted by fanciful pen strokes and cloudy bursts suggesting a change in weather—literal, proverbial and otherwise. Here, Strati seems to evoke the emergence of hope in joining opposing factions, resolving their party lines and bridging the gap between differences—which is ironic because the drawn images derive from the same plate. Perhaps the message goes further, suggesting that our differences aren’t that great.  

In the dozen or more works in the show, Strati is careful to use only the basic “words” or elements contained in the plate narratives. It’s the syntax—with a bit of Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal flourish—that he changes in order to create a reformed language. This gesture suggests that a new way of speaking may be possible now that—as a people—we have collectively broken down or fragmented under the duress of the contemporary human condition. Yet, it’s also important to use the common languages we all share to “act nice,” coexist and work well together. 

The show’s format is curious. Each work comes framed with broken plate pieces glued to drawn-on paper that has been mounted on board and covered in glass—like conventional rectilinear art. Yet, the works are about the many meanings of fracturing, subdividing, reduction—and rebuilding. I could see this work better installed directly on the wall and later learned that Strati had done just that with his earlier works in past exhibitions. Why, then, display them in this contained fashion? Does it add a layer of civility, a discrete way of saying, “This is the time and place to create a dialogue about change?” Perhaps—or it may simply be a convenience.

Throughout this collection of new works, Strati primarily plays with form, earnestly drawing as much as doodling—in the very best sense of that word. But that’s part of the process. He enacts a sense of play that I believe he hopes opens dialogue between maker and subject, between our identity and the story we tell. It is with that play—the willingness to break form, to let loose, to be free—which may cue audiences that simple accidents or even outright fights may lay the groundwork to rebuild what is broken in new ways, instead of simply repeating past actions and the seamless record of their history. 

Rob Strati: Fragments is on view April 4 through May 19, 2024 at Fremin GalleryWM


Stephen Wozniak

Stephen Wozniak is a visual artist, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in the Bradbury Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Leo Castelli Gallery, and Lincoln Center. He has performed principal roles on Star Trek: EnterpriseNCIS: Los Angeles, and the double Emmy Award-nominated Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code. He co-hosted the performing arts series Center Stage on KXLU radio in Los Angeles and guest hosts Art World: The Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art podcast in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more, go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart and @thestephenwozniak.

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