There is something psychologically enchanting about the concept of “new.” Brand new, fresh off the shelf, shiny from the package. Pristine, unworn, still warm from the assembly line, mold flashing still intact, new car smell. But what happens to the old? The forgotten, the archived, the cast off – the detritus of our century. Landfilled somewhere perhaps, or moldering in laminated chests in grandma’s attic, festooned with cobwebs. Create! Create! Is the clarion call, and it is a rousing one, a challenge exhorting us to realize as discrete objects our collective potential, in realms both technological and artistic.


But some realize that the spirit of love and care that goes into our brave, modern objects was once offered up to the objects of yesteryear, and that there is some quiet signature, a baked-in value with no expiration date, still radiating outward from the forgotten things, the broken things, the things abandoned and fallen out of purpose. Boston’s fine artist, Rob Rovenolt, has made it his life’s pursuit to find new aesthetic purpose for these old things, giving them new life as visual art. Rovenolt accomplishes this, through an open dialogue with the intrinsic physical properties and multifaceted cultural meanings of this old things-eventually rediscovering and repurposing them through the method of collage and assemblage.


Rovenolt works out of the Artist Studios Building of the Boston Center for the Arts, where he has been a fixture since 1974. The building is a former industrial structure which now houses about 40 visual artists, along with offices representing local theater and dance companies. Rovenolt’s fourth-floor studio is itself part of a former dance rehearsal space, which was partitioned off into simple, elegant visual art studios some years ago. Rovenolt’s studio abounds with tools and materials, but it is not cluttered – Rovenolt says he has to stay organized due to the nature of his methodology. He has had a good number of years to improve his workflow, having lived in the art world for an enviable period of time.


That time period has essentially been Rovenolt’s whole life. “Early on, in childhood, I felt I had some artistic bent – in terms of being always interested in drawing and creating in any kind of way,” Rovenolt says. He kept the light alive all the way through high school, thanks in part to a member of the faculty. “Through school, through high school especially, I was nurtured by a very good art teacher,” he recalls. Rovenolt also became very involved with theater and drama in high school, designing posters and becoming the art editor of the school yearbook. From there it was a natural choice to go on to art school, which Rovenolt did, enrolling at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.


Rovenolt’s third year at Temple was especially formative, although he did not spend it in Philadelphia. A year spent studying abroad in Italy opened Rovenolt’s eyes further to the incredible possibilities of art. “[Studying in Italy] was just, to me, a major milestone in terms of the immersion in another culture, and also just being able to see these unbelievable works,” Rovenolt says. “From the Sistine Chapel to whatever, going to Florence and seeing the David and all the amazing museums… By that point I was very determined that I was going to try to make my career as an artist.” Rovenolt went on to graduate school at the University of Illinois. During his graduate studies, he visited a friend in Boston and fell in love with the city. He decided he would move to what he describes as the “small European-style city” after graduate school, and has remained ever since.


After graduate school and a stint as an art teacher, Rovenolt set about the somewhat ambiguous business of becoming a professional artist. He considers himself fortunate to have had such strong feelings about his purpose. “I had this sense that I have this innate talent of some sort,” Rovenolt says. “That I should – since I was given it – I should explore. And it just felt comfortable even though I knew it wouldn’t be an easy life, financially.”


Still, it is not easy to come to terms with a profession that has such slippery notions of what deserves or does not deserve success. “But of course, when you’re young and full of vinegar you say ‘I’ll have a show in the Museum of Modern Art by the time I’m thirty!’ [Laughs]. You’re very naïve, and it slowly dawns on you that the world, the art world is a very big place, and you’re a small cog in it. But as long as you feel that you’re not selling out, and you’re doing the work that’s meaningful to you, sales or no sales… I feel very satisfied with what I’ve been doing, so there’s never been any doubt.”


Rovenolt describes his style as “Collage and Assemblage.” There is a philosophy behind this method and its resulting style. “I’ve always felt that the work that you make, that the artist makes, should be indicative of the time that you live in,” Rovenolt says. “So for me finding cast off materials and reclaimed, recycled materials is sort of in itself a record of when I lived.”


Discovery and improvisation are central to Rovenolt’s method. “I work very intuitively, so for me to preplan a piece, and then paint it or execute it, or do a series of the same things, has no – it would be very boring for me,” he says. “So I go through the opposite way, and find materials, or I’m given materials, and maybe really sit and respond to one particular item, and then decide how that might be best showcased.” Rovenolt says that he has a very good mental inventory of the items kept in the neatly labeled drawers, boxes, cabinets and containers that are strategically placed around his studio. With color, texture, size and form always in mind, Rovenolt brings together the pieces for composition. “It’s a very additive process,” he says. There is often some subtraction involved as well, when the compositions become too complicated or busy. Once the elements are placed in their proper arrangement, the next phase of the work begins. “When I know it feels right, balance-wise, color-wise, that’s when I fabricate it.”


Rovenolt is very fond of this method, and says it allows him to constantly make new discoveries. “By using objects and finding something new and responding to it, it takes me down some path that I wouldn’t normally go.”


Rovenolt counts Robert Rauschenberg among his art heroes, and Rovenolt is especially fond of Rauschenberg’s found object period. The audacity of Rauschenberg’s art still impresses Rovenolt today. “I just loved the fact that he was taking stuff off the streets of New York and just putting it in a white wall gallery and making it look like it was okay to be there, even though it was so outrageous,” He says. It is with an almost giddy fondness that Rovenolt remembers Rauschenberg’s bizarre, borderline-transgressive works such as Ceiling + Light Bulb (1950), Bed (1955), Canyon (1959) and Monogram (1955-59).


Rovenolt enjoys the alchemic ideal that goes with the reclamation, repurposing and rediscovery of fortuitously-gathered objects. “I like the challenge of working with – creating some new surface and a new connotation so that often times the pieces I use aren’t immediately identifiable as what they were,” he says. “I want them to have a little bit of mystery.”

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