Radical Continuities January 2010
by Catherine Somzé
How many of us haven’t fantasized about participating in one of US realist painter Terry Rodgers’ high-end parties? About meeting the enticing creatures who are the subjects of his portraits or enjoying the promise of sex in his images? For some of us, Rodgers’ latest foray into the medium of photography will come as welcome news, since the naturalism of photography intimates the potential of crossing the line between fantasy and reality. For others - painting and photography purists, perhaps - his new work might at first appear as a form of self-indulgence or even an act of blunt betrayal of his previous work.
It can be argued that realistic painting and photography still inhabit wholly different, and mutually exclusive, discursive spaces. Over the past 30 years, practitioners and thinkers about the status of photography have been eager to separate photography from naturalism or those mimetic aspirations that characterized Western art up until the arrival of the 20th century avant-garde. In order to become art in the 1970s, photography had to become conceptual and reconsider its ties to the visible world, i.e. to become self-reflexive. Visual artists working with photography started interrogating its naturalism and the apparatus responsible for it. On the other hand, the basic premise of realistic painting rests on just the opposite. It implies a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, the purpose of which is to create a seamless naturalism. For the contemporary photographer naturalism is a medium. For the realistic painter, it is a goal.
In the case of Rodgers’ realistic paintings, however, one cannot forget the conceptual impetus that drives their creation. As Rodgers puts it: “I am looking at the lens through which we see one another.” Rodgers’ grandes machines are much more than visual metaphors or allegories of contemporary life. They are tools we can use to look at the world. Or to quote French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “neo-figuration” or the use of figuration in contemporary painting is merely “an invocation of resemblance,”i which is at the same time “the flagrant proof of the disappearance of objects in their very representation: hyperreal.”ii That’s probably the reason why Rodgers never felt there was any contradiction implicit in working with photography. Today the aim of visual artists working with photography coincides with those of figurative painters –even though the appearance of their art does not. Whatever the medium Rodgers chooses, he is driven by the need to provide devices through which to explore meaning, beyond surface appearances.
Since his early years as a student at Amherst College, the camera has always been a handy instrument for Rodgers to enquire into the wonders of the visible world. In this sense, photography has played a role in Rodgers’ creative practice that is similar to drawing. Just as his drawings ended up being more than mere preparatory sketches, his photographs became autonomous works of art.
In his early black-and-white series shot between 1988 and 1994, photography is a medium to capture the singularity of the models and – more importantly – a tool to interrogate the way we look at the underpinning tradition of photography. Seminal to the history of photography practiced by visual artists since the 1970s is the attention to the representation of “otherness” in Western arts. Historically instrumental in producing information or data on marginalized subjects – colonial subjects,iii criminals,iv hysterical womenv – photography originally played a role in casting deviant identities. But in contemporary photography, when visual artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine decided to create new work using the medium of photography, they did so by deconstructing the language of photography that supported the unequal distribution of power in society and the traditional use of the medium of photography as a symbolic tool of patriarchal control. For visual artists working with photography, the new aim was to produce photographs that would unveil the constructed nature of the photographic representation and the dominant ideology they support.vi
It is against this backdrop that, in the late 1980s, Rodgers produced his black-and-white series that included works such as, “The Overseer,” “Xenos” and “The Veil.” They all feature what one might call un-disciplined or “deviant” bodies, to borrow Foucault’s terms: black, transsexual, crippled, and elderly and obese. Often naked, yet in striking exuberant poses and wearing angels’ wings, Rodgers’ models look straight into the lens, fearlessly. But the photographer is not busy here deconstructing the photographic medium; Rodgers still believes in what some call the photographic truth. He aims his camera to capture the essence of his models’ humanness, not to comment on the socially constructed nature of their being. He adorns them with garlands and bridal veils, ties them up or uses prostheses to simulate the missing parts of their bodies, and he even covers their faces with conical Ku Klux Klan caps.
These images are remarkably shocking despite their poetic titles and lack of color that place them into the realm of the myth and the fantasy. On the one hand, they are confrontational to a viewer who is used to understanding photography as a form of deconstruction and social analysis. But to Rodgers, the postmodern notion that identity is a cultural construct and a fiction appears cool and heartless. There has to be something upon which individuals build their experience of reality; and that something is the inborn, essential self. This is what his camera seeks to bring to light: a kind of essentialism.
Another reason that might account for the fact that Rodgers’ photographs appear as unsettling is that they highlight the grotesque. The staging – with masks, garlands, prostheses, images associated with bondage etc. – is excessive and provokes a sense of unease. They are a far cry from edifying representations of “otherness” encountered in contemporary art, such as Marc Quinn’s series of full-body sculptures of disabled people carved in white marble. Rodgers allows his viewers no distance between themselves and those in the photographs. The “other” is not dignified, elegized or made “acceptable.” No compassion is permitted. Rodgers’ models stand before us with their radical difference on display – and their difference needs no improvement, rejection or sanctification. It is a difference that has to be understood as a form of normalcy.
A few decades passed before Rodgers produced a new photo series. In this new work, docile bodies – bodies that mirror social normalcy i.e. young, thin, heterosexual – are on display this time. They are the same models we encounter in his realistic paintings. This series might be said to reflect the opposite of his early black-and-white shots: from making difference “normal” to making “normalcy” a form of deviance. But to categorize Rodgers’ latest photographic work as simply “photography” is misleading. This latest body of work is better described as a form of digital photomontage or, taking it further, as photo-construction.
As with most visual artists working today in new and so-called old media, Rodgers uses state-of-the-art technologies in his artistic practice. Image-editing software such as Photoshop and Illustrator have always played an important part in his creative process as a painter. The group portraits that have become his signature works since the end of the 1990s result from painting images that bring together models who were photographed separately. Rodgers composes the group portraits on a computer, trying out different combinations and ordering the scenes in a series of steps. Similarly, works such as “Angels,” “Confluence” and “Les étoiles” from his new series of photographs are made up of as many as 200 different layers of indexical signs (the photographs), combined with iconic and symbolic drawings, graffiti-like symbols and decorative patterns.
In these composite photographs, Rodgers takes care to create a distance between the subject matter – those barely-dressed young models in lavish interiors we so admired in his paintings – and the way we perceive them. One is constantly reminded that the image is a fragile and imperfect construction. For this very reason, Rodgers creates distortions or leaves traces of the manipulation that gave way to the image. Some of the figures are purposefully imperfectly cut or morphed onto the overall composition, such as in “Confluence” and “Lineage.” The hair of some of the figures appears against a white background, coarsely delineated as if they were cheap paper dolls or cartoon characters. In other works, whole figures or some part of the body is distorted or cut into different color areas. Another technique Rodgers uses frequently is to take one body part and repeat it in various locations in the image. In the case of “Double entendre,” the mouth is used twice (hence the title) and in “The Sybil,” a bellybutton and pubic hair form a separate black-and-white cameo – free-floating in the background of the composition. To further emphasize the artificiality of the whole, Rodgers multiplies gaily-colored graphics, which spiral and disrupt the scene.
It is tempting to see in these digital photo-constructions the reflections of a social critic at work, juxtaposing unrelated images in the vein of Dada, the most radical avant-garde movement that developed the technique before Surrealists and Constructivists made extensive use of it in the 1920s and 1930s. Rodgers’ fabricated works draw on multiple modes of representation —of indexical, iconic and symbolic signs from advertising, design and street art — as they also incorporate some of Rodgers’ signature ideas and motifs: docile bodies looking down in blasé attitudes, props, drinks and art-historical references. Together they create exuberant and surrealistic combinations of everyday objects, graphics, drawings and photographs. They project a fantasy world in which “delicate gestures, driving desires, economic complexity, interdependence, isolation and hope” become one.
Catherine Somzé is an art history and media theory professor at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. She is the chief art critic for Time Out Amsterdam and a regular contributor to magazines on photography, art and culture. She is based in Amsterdam.
iii James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: P hotography and the V isualization of the British Empire, (London: Reaktion Books, 1997).
iv John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1993).
v Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (1982), transl. (from the French) by Alisa Hartz, (Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MITT Press, 2003).
vi Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2002).