Pulling Out the Heavy Artillery

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a regular contributor to Calendar

Roger Herman lives life large.

His dark green house with the bright blue door towers above the bungalows of his Elysian Park neighbors. A friendly but huge bull mastiff and Great Dane greet a wary visitor. The interior is as cozy as a warehouse. His industrial-strength oil paintings are stored in racks. The white walls are papered with variations of 9-by-5-foot woodblock prints of tanks, ranch houses and vases of flowers. In an alcove, cabinets display dozens of his rough ceramic bowls illustrated with his frankly erotic designs.

In a German accent undiminished by nearly two decades in Los Angeles, Herman cheerfully admits that he's no expert on printmaking or pottery. "The weird thing is that they are both media that I always despised," he says. "There are two things I approach like a beginner, so I have all the freedom in the world."

Herman's prints are being shown at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects through July 1, while a dozen pieces of his pottery are on exhibit at Cirrus Gallery through July 8.

Herman, 52, is well-known for his monumental canvases of a blocky and balconied modern apartment building. He has painted this mundane subject hundreds of times on a grand and modest scale in monotone grays or luscious shades of pistachio, chartreuse or pink, leading critics to compare his efforts to Claude Monet's renditions of the Rouen Cathedral.

For more than a decade, Herman showed his often enormous paintings in the vast rooms of ACE Gallery here and in New York, but he left the gallery in 1998 after a financial dispute with owner Doug Chrismas.

The decision provided him with an opportunity to rethink the direction of his work, and he turned--as a novice--to work in clay. Although he has been a professor in the prestigious UCLA art department since 1984, he opted to take lessons from one of his graduate students, Lisa Yu. She told him his efforts were "off center but still in control--just like you."

A self-described "binge worker," Herman at the outset spent 10 hours a day throwing pots and drawing pictures on them of women engaged in obvious sexual acts, in the style of Japanese erotic prints.

"The students looked at me like I'm some dirty old man in the corner," he says, laughing but not at all embarrassed. Soon, he had completed about 500 pots. "Every one of them I like. They are funny, not really that erotic."

The freedom Herman found working in clay opened the way to woodblock prints, which he had not attempted for 10 years. "It's good to take a break every once in a while," he says. "The pots, for me, were sort of a vacation."

Large sheets of plywood are stacked around his backyard. Determinedly low-tech, Herman paints a design on both sides of the plywood panels, then chisels the indentations that carry the various inks. The floor of his studio is littered with dozens of his initial attempts at printing castles, tulips and brides. "I didn't think of subject matter but of learning what was possible," he says.

They depart from the Expressionist-style woodblock prints he did in the early '80s with black and one other color. Inspired by a 1999 trip to Japan, where he saw modern woodblock prints called Shin-Hanga, Herman increased the number of colors so that each print seemingly vibrates with brilliant tropical and forest hues. "I have the freedom of approaching something without a preconceived notion of technique," he says. "Printmakers tear their hair out when they see them because the ink is rolled on too thick. But I don't have a roller."

Picking a rounded piece of wood off the floor, Herman says, "I just rub them with this."

The piece de resistance of the Vielmetter show is a German tank printed in hot pink, orange and green, executed on three panels to measure 8 by 15 feet. "It is closer to Warhol, more photographic than my earlier work," he says. There are more subdued and smaller versions of the tanks as well as olive and rust ranch houses that look like barracks and bright orange and blue vases of flowers, all to be crowded into Vielmetter's small but high-ceilinged space.

Seated at a handsome wood table in the upstairs portion of his loft, one of the first residences designed and built by L.A. architect (and art lover) Frederick Fisher, Herman pours unsweetened homemade lemonade into glasses and discusses his work.

"Right now, the paintings are jealous of the prints because they work," he says. "The prints have such a confidence."

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Herman was born in 1947 to a French father and German mother in the Franco-German town of Saarbrucken. (French when he was born, it became German by plebiscite in 1959.) He speaks both languages fluently. Yet, with his bright blue eyes, fair coloring and buzz-cut hair, he admits, "I feel more German--maybe because of the way I look."

His father was in a concentration camp because of his left-wing views during the war and died of cancer when his son was 10. Herman's mother, who sent him to a French school, died when he was 19. Herman inherited his parents' liberal convictions, studied political science and law at college in the late '60s.

"I was interested in the logic of being a lawyer." Yet, he was unhappy with his studies and, at age 25, he enrolled in the Akademie der Kunst in Karlsruhe. While there, he married classmate Susan Wood, a U.S. citizen, and had his daughter Jessica. (At 25, she, too, is an artist and lives two blocks from her father.) A German government-run DAAD grant brought Herman and his wife, with their daughter, to her native San Francisco in 1976. There, he was attracted to the work of Expressionist Bay Area painters Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn but, after his marriage dissolved, Herman decided L.A. was a livelier town for contemporary art. "It had this enormous feeling of a beginning," he recalls. "There was such an enthusiasm."

Herman came to the attention of an international audience in the early '80s, when there was a surge of interest in the expressive painting of contemporary German artists. Herman was praised for his German Expressionist-style paintings and the giant woodblock prints made after celebrated paintings by Vincent Van Gogh or Jacques-Louis David.

"I used art icons that were loaded with meaning," he says.

From 1981, he showed with the dynamic Ulrike Kantor Gallery on La Cienega and married gallery assistant Tamara Davis, now a video and film director. (They divorced in 1988.) At the nearby Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Mike Kelley and Lari Pittman were just launching their careers, and the downtown L.A. scene was vibrant with underground clubs and alternative spaces. By 1985, Herman had earned the New Talent Award from the L.A. County Museum of Art along with a small show at the museum.

After the Kantor Gallery closed in 1984, he joined ACE and pursued his building paintings to the exclusion of other interests. "I did that instead of making art about art, art that was self-conscious or ironic. Painting from your own script is the worst thing that can happen to an artist. During the late '70s, everyone was trying to figure out the dilemma of painting. But once I knew what that work was about, I became an executioner of my own ideas--an illustrator."

The woodcuts led to a more serial and structural quality in the paintings of apartment buildings, which he did for more than 10 years. "They were abstract and representational, painterly and rigorous," he says. "They were disciplined, simple, yet satisfying.

"I started making paintings that are more about themselves, dealing with their medium as an issue. I'm not interested in big ideas and critical concepts in painting," Herman says boldly. "What is the critical concept in a Matisse interior? A painting can still be intelligent without a critical concept."

These are strong opinions from UCLA's head of painting and drawing at a time when academics run art departments and force-feed critical theory to their students. But, "I don't teach what I do," Herman demurs. "I'm open; I try to understand what they want to do and what their goals are, to help them."

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The irrepressible Herman has a reputation for being perspicacious in his support of new talent. He was among the first to buy drawings from highly original Raymond Pettibon and most recently, has founded an alternative gallery in Chinatown. With his girlfriend of two years, commercial photographer Eika Aoshima; Austrian artist Hubert Schmalix; and German film producer Chris Sierernich, Herman opened Black Dragon Society at 961 Chung King Road to showcase the work of students and friends, like Bob Zoell, who shows there this month. (The gallery is open from noon-6 p.m. on Saturdays.)

In his role of European artist-intellectual, Herman evades the emotional in his Expressionist-style prints and paintings, which are mostly based on commercial or news photos.

"I try to run away from the personal," he says. For example, the generic apartment building was taken from a book about Pretoria, South Africa. "Yet, when Jessica was born, my wife and I lived in an apartment building just like it in Karlsruhe, with the same balconies, five stories high," he says. "After the fact, you find the connection to what you produced. Then it is personal."

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Roger Herman new work, through July 1 at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-6 p.m. (323) 933-2117. (Madeleine Huttenbach's work is in the Project Space.)

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Roger Herman ceramics, through July 8 at Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., L.A. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (213) 680-3473. (Joan Nelson's prints are also on view.)

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