Terry Rodgers — Drawings

Graphic Delight

I’m on the ride of my hand.
Terry Rodgers, 2009.

When a painter comes out for the first time with work on paper, the most natural thing is to ask oneself how this new set of pieces relates to his paintings. Were the drawings meant as preparatory studies? Or were they inspired by existing works? How do they relate in terms of technique, subject matter and feel to his work on canvas? In the case of Terry Rodgers’ drawings, to approach them properly is to acknowledge both their kinship and profound dissimilarity with his body of painting. It is to use them as decoder of the latter and enjoy them for their autonomous power.

Over the past few years, Rodgers has come to international fame with a series of large-scale hyper-realistic group renderings in the guise of high-end parties. Rodgers’ complicated and multi-layered approach to depicting contemporary desire has prompted a volatile critical context around his work. In a review for Art in America Cathy Byrd elegantly described Rodgers’ work as an ‘elegy of emptiness.’ Whereas Rodgers’ grandes machines might be interpreted as depicting the current decadence of Western society, it still does so in a way that seduces the eye. Rodgers’ technical virtuosity and artistic impetus push an appreciation of his work beyond simplistic body politics. One would lose a lot to view his work strictly in terms of a censoring social commentary or, on the other hand, as a mere display of conspicuous manual talent. In light of these possible—if oversimplified—views on his artistic enterprise, his work on paper constitutes a unique key to grasping the full complexity of his vision of our own conflicted relation to success, pleasure and beauty. 

Rodgers has always been a draftsman. From his earliest years as a student, he went out and drew what he saw. As he captured people chatting in cafes or daydreaming on their way back home, his work on paper amounted to character studies and something of a social observation. It was only later, when he mastered the art of drawing, that he learned the joy of letting his hand wander across the blank paper, uncovering the form that was awaiting his pencil to be revealed. Today, Rodgers plays with drawings in different ways. It is sometimes a tool to think about new compositions. The plasticity of drawing makes it easy to experiment and try out different possibilities. It is also a natural activity for a painter who constantly feels the need to doodle and to experiment with forms. Rodgers primarily enjoys drawing for the sake of drawing.

Devoid of color and conferred with the seemingly authentic simplicity of a pencil mark across a bare surface, Rodgers’ work on paper epitomizes what drawing ought to be: a trace and an inscription of its own making—the ever-astonishing expression of its own becoming. Lines are nervously drawn and the figures remain sketchy. The whole is endowed with a sense of restlessness and urgency. Nothing is left of the solemn monumentality and precise uneasiness that so thoroughly characterizes his work on canvas. In spite of the fact that the figures are recognizable both in his paintings and in his drawings, one relates to them in completely different ways. The feel of imminent disaster and latent anxiety, which looms in the first, has been replaced by a primal energy that electrifies the bodies in the latter. One is less likely to speak here anymore of a state of isolation or alienation. The spontaneity of the graphic gesture cancels at once the distance between the figures and makes room for a completely different mood. Whereas the relation to desire portrayed in Rodgers’ paintings is a conflicted one, sexual intimacy and love appear as true possibilities in the frame of his drawings. Frustration and enervation have vanished. A sense of unrestrained closeness pervades the scenes. Whereas Rodgers’ paintings are dense with beings who seem to have lost themselves in the process of trying to locate satisfaction in a complex and mediated world, the individuals who arise from the nothingness of the drawing paper seem to somehow represent the possibility of that satisfaction.

These aspects elevate Rodgers’ drawings to the status of autonomous works. They stand on their own and express a vision of humanity different from that which is the thematic signature of his body of painting. Or is it so? The direct rawness of Rodgers’ drawing intimates the possibility of a real encounter. The artist seems to suggest to us that the achingly redemptive pleasure may be within reach. His own delight is to paint and to draw, excitable bodies and the possibility of raptures to come.