Looking at a Ron Rovner is like looking at a sheet of piano music, a connection clearly intended by the artist, a pianist. Symbols take the place of musical notes, but they have enough repeated and connected insistence that they seem to form an invented but fully functional symbolic language – like the Western system of musical notation developed by the Italian Guido d’Arezzo precisely 1,000 years ago.

For most of us, however, a sheet of music is merely a broad symbol of music. Sure, we can sense something lively is happening when the notes shoot up and down and get so jammed together that they have two or three bands connecting them. But even for a musician, that sheet needs to be read through completely in order to get the sense of the structure – the composition.

Rovner is hardly alone in looking to the abstraction of movement, tone and rhythm of music in his paintings. Betsy Eby, for example, is one of Maine’s most accomplished abstract painters. And she, too, is an accomplished classical pianist. While Eby’s work looks to the aesthetic sensation of music, Rovner looks to the systems of music within a compositional structure. In other words, Eby’s work looks like how music sounds, while Rovner’s pulsing and overlapping circuits looks like how music is constructed. Eby’s aesthetic appears in an abstract instant. But Rovner’s takes time – not unlike reading a page – so it’s more difficult, but it is worth it.

Rovner’s phrasing needs time to unfold.

"Nachtmusik Opus 20.1," 20" x 20," acrylic, ink and pastel on panel.

“Nachtmusik Opus 20.1,” 20″ x 20,” acrylic, ink and pastel on panel.

The markings of Rovner’s abstract “Nachtmusik” paintings are precise but they open up to identifiable forms that repeat and loop throughout the composition. And while there are many systems operating at once – like in a symphony – it is enough to follow one strand of forms, since that will often reveal similarly responsive systems around it. Once you start, the painting takes over.

To really get a feel for Rovner’s work, you have to let it lead you around at its own pace. That’s the thing that makes visual art different from music, movies, theater and any kind of performance: You can look at a painting in your own time and interrupt it with spoken (or thought) comments whenever you want. Rovner’s “Nachtmusik” works, however, are more like poems — it is generally best to get through a poem completely and at the provided meter of the spoken language.

Rovner’s exhibition at Elizabeth Moss includes two modes of his work: The “Nachtmusik” and a series of seemingly simpler abstractions so focused on their object status that they feel like wall sculptures. “Bolero IV,” for example, is a diptych of foot-square panels that sit 2 inches off the wall. Each has four geometrical puzzle-piece sections – black, wood brown, sand beige and a chartreuse vertical rectangle at the center. The panels initially appear symmetrical, but they aren’t. This is where things get interesting: Each panel works very well by itself, but trying to work out the differences between the two creates an unexpected musical counterpoint. It’s much easier (and much more subtle) than the “Nachtmusik” work, but it makes for an extremely different experience. If the “Nachtmusik” pieces are Chopin (complex, difficult, energized and exciting), the “Bolero” work is Satie – small and subtle with an unexpectedly witty depth.

"Bolero IV," 12" x 12," construction, acrylic, rust on panel

“Bolero IV,” 12″ x 12,” construction, acrylic, rust on panel Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Moss Galleries

Rovner’s titles are unintentional traps. Ravel’s “Bolero” will come to mind for most of us — and mislead. A bolero is a very lively type of Spanish dance, not the insistent meandering of Ravel. “Nachtmusik,” too, is most commonly associated with Mozart’s playful “Eine kleine nachtmusik” – which translates as “a little night music.” But “nachtmusik” also means “nocturne,” which is generally a brooding and thoughtfully quiet genre of music. (The nocturne is also a great subject for visual art as the Bowdoin College Museum of Art showed us earlier in the year with the nation’s first – and seminally superb – survey of “nocturne” paintings.) I am not sure which of these is Rovner’s target, but there is a huge difference between the affable and entertaining Mozart piece and, say, the dreamy impressionism of Debussy or the heaving darkness of Schubert’s nocturnes. It’s an intriguing question to ask, but the best way to answer it is to look at the paintings and find your own feel for the motions and energy of the work.

You might think Rovner’s works look a bit out of place in Maine, but think again. Much of the best abstraction now being made in Maine looks to looping systems logic, like Garry Mitchell’s game theory circuits at Icon, Ken Greenleaf’s tiny clockwork gouaches or his larger shaped canvases at Caldbeck and Greenhut, Jung Hur’s monumental and powerfully pulsing multiple-perspective systems paintings at Corey Daniels Gallery, Clint Fulkerson at Ocean House Gallery, or Jeff Kellar’s shifting grids at Icon and Corey Daniels.

Rovner’s subject, the symbolic language of music, is not particularly uncommon for painting, but his handling of it is unusual and offers much more depth than a typical, visual impression. Speaking as musician, I think Rovner’s work might be the only painting I have ever seen that offers real and practical insights into the structure of common practice (i.e., classical) music. If you give Rovner’s work some time, it might make you a better listener.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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