Terry Rodgers' Approximations
By Jim Zimmerman
We are all magicians now, with our miracle gadgets and instant all-knowingness. In terms of the luxuries available to us, we are royalty. And we can be our own court jesters, skipping from distraction to distraction with the virtual snap of our tap-tap-tapping fingers. So why would we ever want to strike up a face-to-face conversation with someone?
Something in us does want to do that, is drawn to another person, is aware of the "pull"—and an equal something in us prefers avoidance, wishes to void ourselves of other presences. Social media, so-called, lets us simultaneously gain intimacy and keep our distance, as if populating the void with a commotion of waves of almost-significance. By all scientific accounts, our conflicting tendencies about contact with others appear to be innate. In effect, the electronic polis and the metaphorical cave are equally appealing at some profound, possibly genetic level of our being.
Entering the cave and the polis of Terry Rodgers' latest exhibition in Brussels, "Approximations of the Sublime," we aren't sufficiently prepared to be face-to-face with our own consciousness, our own confused hopefulness. Unlike seeing ourselves in a mirror, this reflexive experience is invisible. At the intersection of self-consciousness and self-knowledge, we are prone to deny that anyone can tell us anything new about ourselves, much less anything of significance that we have somehow overlooked or forgotten. Of course, the obvious paradox, and the perennial riddle, is that we really wish someone would indeed discover us for who exactly we are, which is mostly beyond us. We are that entity far below the skin, that intangible and yet dynamic something. We are accustomed to know not what.
"Approximations of the Sublime" celebrates the unknown self in bold color photographs, brilliant large canvases, dazzling lightboxes, and two exquisite video installations, the immediate stars of the show, which offer a display of technical precision that is in itself an approximation of the sublime. Almost lost in the wealth of images are two fascinating drawings.
At first glance, all of this might be mistaken for simply another ironic instance of postmodernity reigning supreme, bouncing our sense impressions around the gallery spaces like so many ping pong balls sprung by mousetraps. But, if we situate ourselves and open our eyes (and ears, in this exhibition), we begin to guess that what is playful is not nonsense, what is colorful is not mere eye candy, and what is emphasizing the contingent is also presenting a swashbuckling confidence, dazzling but not gimmicky.
The playful art Rodgers makes is also replete with critical seriousness. He makes things that matter. They resist and encourage engagement in a dialectical dance of majestic lines and surprising details. No question is begged; every question is invited. As he puts it, "In our ever-analytical age, do we really understand what influences our experience? And then, from my perspective, what is falsely credited or blamed for influencing our experience? Is it more subtle or elusive than what we think that contributes to our experience?"
This is serious art that honors the greatest traditions of painting, photography, graphic design, and even sculpture. It invites us to forget contemporaneity, futurology, and gamification in favor of having an immediate experience with the workings of our own minds. An experiment, really. If any of us happen in fact to be futurists or gamers, we are going to be goaded to re-think things with more energy and imagination than we remembered having before.
The title of this show conjures up Kant, and the Kantian sublime hovers in the background of the intellectual experience. As Jacques Ranciere has written, "It is…the peculiarity of a new mode of art—sublime art—to record the trace of the unthinkable." This is the same Ranciere who has written about "the pensive image," and here we have pensive images galore!
"My interest," Rodgers says, "is in somehow capturing an aspect of our experience—how we see, view, picture ourselves, (including the fact of the habit that we picture ourselves)—and how we experience a sense of isolation in a world of billions, and still feel the ever-present 'pull' that has us seek out each other."
The first thing we are confronted with in the gallery setting is a series of color photographs, exuberantly bright upon an ominous black void. These brightly stark stills can be seen as the cast of characters. The blackness is one aspect of the historical theorizing about the sublime, where qualities of absolute light and absolute darkness obliterate mere aesthetic qualities.
Rodgers observes, "I am extracting the individuals from the maelstrom of attempted interaction and letting us examine them, and ourselves, solo, alone, without all the social referents in the paintings. These figures are decked out for something—for themselves, which means for ourselves, and for a public presentation in quest of social acceptance."
Known for his large-scale realistic paintings, Rodgers continues to show extraordinary canvases. "With the paintings," he explains, "I continue to explore, with a visual complexity, the confusion of our emotional uncertainty. Even in a seemingly perfect environment—a bow to the commercial ideal—how do we experience stepping across the void to relate to another human being?"
Though unabashedly contemporary, paradoxically, Rodgers makes Rubens relevant again. The two dozen paintings of the Marie de' Medici cycle in The Louvre take on a completely new look after 400 years. They make sense as representations of the physical presence of the human, even when they are angels and cupids. Rodgers' fleshly human representatives are lean and worldly, but the stretching, bending, reaching figures writhe through our visual field just as Rubens' figures do.
However, in this show, there is a decided development in the Rodgers approach. "In some paintings," he says, "I am stripping away the gilding and the contemporary desire to be associated with the trappings of the opulent past. One of my paintings is set in a nightclub. Another is set by the water at night. I will continue to explore the possibilities suggested by these starker environments."
There's nothing stark about the two lightboxes in this show. They represent an extravagant and triumphant convergence of forms and media. Rodgers is playing with the mutations and products of ubiquitous contemporary graphic imagery, and rather than demystifying anything, the lightboxes celebrate the life of the image.
Rodgers says, "The lightboxes, especially the triptychs and polyptychs, are all-inclusive in some way. They are chaos, and they are the whole universe, and they are our personal place in that maelstrom of confusion. They ask, in a playful way, 'What is happening?'"
And Rodgers knows very well what is happening in the experience of coming face-to-face with the lightboxes. "These works emphasize the fragmented nature of our world," he observes. "They play with the classical mythologies as well as the religious mythologies, both of which are additional fragmented parts of our inner worlds. They contain bits and pieces from a contemporary world, pieces which reference different periods of our history, and the metaphor of the lights that become the stars of the universe."
With an ethereal soundtrack that can be heard before the actual piece is seen, the 12-minute video titled "Approximations" is, in its instant accessibility, the centerpiece of the show. The gorgeousness of the soundtrack perfectly matches the interpenetrating presences of the ever-changing images, ranging from x-ray negative to abstract to close-up portraiture, unceasingly. To stand rapt before the video is perfectly natural, but it is also the fate of The Louvre's "Mona Lisa"—to draw a crowd that in effect turns its back upon the less familiar. In fact, in this case, the two video works serve as a recapitulation and re-introduction to the rest of the show. After "Approximations," the sublime qualities of the other works become even more striking.
The large-format "Approximations" video suggests the waves of natural forms that emanate from sun, wind, water: the oceanic combination of the visual and the aural, reforming, intertwining, mutating, evolving, metamorphosing into something that is more like the constancy of dynamic consciousness than anything else.
In contrast, "Face to Face," is constructed as a wall hanging of seven small video screens, each focusing for a short time on a single individual. Seven different videos play at the same time. So the layering takes a different form. The small screens compel an uneasy intimacy, and viewers may find themselves shifting from one screen to another. It becomes a very active experience, quite different from watching a single video.
Everything in the show works to inform everything else until, after absorbing the various pieces, including two large drawings, one feels that one has been transformed by exposure to the totality of means of human perception.
Only later can we muster the time and concentration to fully appreciate the drawings. Rodgers revels in their distinctness from the rest of the show, and yet their relationship to the other images: "The figures in my drawings are themselves representations of energy. But in this grouping of multiple figures, there is a tension between their separation/isolation and the vitality of the figure realized in the graphite line itself."
"Approximations of the Sublime" is constituted of recursive collaborations of persons and methods and media, of the aural, the visual, and the tactile—and you do indeed want to reach out and touch the linen surfaces.
In the end this show is a tour de force of the topography of the human, sending us down the stream, through the rapids, across hips and faces and along the incandescent surfaces of skin. Athletic joy abounds in the stretching limbs; desire and suffering are both present in the tangle of bodies. These are fallen angels, mythic characters, and yet so delicately and effortlessly documented in their natural unnaturalness, their natural artificiality, their artificial ecstasies and anxieties.
The multimodal intertextuality of genres, media and Weltanschauungs suggests the hybrids of human communities. We take pleasure in the mysteries of the multiple cryptographies, codes that inform one another and unlock the richness of each other, suggesting critical interpretive systems that enrich one another in every juxtaposition. Ultimately, "Approximations of the Sublime" is a pure aesthetic experience that indeed approximates sublimity, in all of its power and all of its ominously exquisite transcendence.
Each of us in our own way senses and even knows that we are someone inside-among-below-within all our physical, material manifestations, from elbows to eyebrows to actions to attitudes to fashion, and even to our unique gait. And yet each of us in that remote purist way is also aware that there is some tendency to want to try to communicate with others experiencing the same strangely familiar phenomena. So we are drawn to interact without the ability to articulate these things we have in common, unless we rely on (or at least invoke) the accoutrements and primitive translation devices of religion, philosophy, psychology, and words-mere-words, and more words.
In this assemblage of Rodgers' work, we feel the pull of the other and the push toward a meeting or an escape, an encounter or a relief from the mystery of actual experience with another. These images dramatize the questions about how and to whom we are drawn, and the faces, figures, gestures, and postures that call to us or drive us back into our protected selves. After all, each of us is a sufficient mystery.
In that moment of inarticulate recognition—of the self or of the other—we are renewed in our sense of being, of being in there somewhere, a social creature isolated among the others, alternately approximating some attempt to reach out and retreating into the preserve of the unfathomable "I." Therein lies the lasting effect of these pieces. We are renewed in a common sense of our sublime, unexplorable uniqueness.