Re-mediating Terry Rodgers
By Jim Zimmerman, 2011
Let us agree that nothing is true. Or, if that is not possible, let us say that everything is true, or, at least, that everything could possibly be true under certain conditions. Or, if that fails, perhaps we might compromise by saying there is no such thing as truth, which changes the terms of the search. We get to choose the new terms. We can arrange our attitudes to conform or to contrast or to avail us of a dozen different gears for assessing and processing the instantaneously infinite information available.
Henry James wrote, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Terry Rodgers may not be aware of this pathetic artistic manifesto, but if he were aware of it, I am certain that he would turn it on its hanging head. Rodgers is an artist who works in the light. He acknowledges far less madness in his art than in the world at large. And ultimately, he would say that his passion is for making things, whether paintings, or photo-constructions, or sketches or black-and-white photos, or videos, or mixed media pieces, or even books. Above all, he has a passion for the well-made thing.
When you begin to study Rodgers’ latest works, you soon realize that truth takes a backseat to freedom, and freedom feels very good indeed when it stumbles onto beauty. Follow Rodgers on this crooked path, and you’re going to have some fun. In fact, wherever he goes, whatever he does, in the course of a typical day, something very like fun is going to happen. In his work and in his life, Rodgers playfully stops time, recalibrates it, and, in restarting it again, reinvigorates it.
Rodgers’ imaginative work pleasantly interrupts our coffeehouse dithering and babbling about “the important things.” In its extraordinary detail and dynamics, it wrenches us out of our hasty wastefulness, our anxious awareness, and our inclination toward the permanent crisis-response mode. Rodgers’ work first seizes us by our popping eyeballs, then by our awakening mind, and ultimately by the short hairs.
Follow Rodgers’ entire career, and you find the same creative energy strewing remarkable works in his wake. He continues to create images that put “Pause” to the usually unstoppable forward progress of the “Play” that too often feels like “Fast Forward.” Confined to works in a gallery, Rodgers’ effect on the viewer takes many forms, all extraordinary and memorable. Above all, the consequence of witnessing a Rodgers show is a refocusing of the mind’s eye.
The latest photo-constructions, presented as prints and lightboxes, elaborate the thematic and compositional aspects of his greatest oil paintings. Rodgers dissects and re-integrates various familiar modes of representation, and when the photo-constructions are presented as triptychs, they both exploit and subvert their religious implications. The lightboxes form a standalone body of work and appeal to altogether different aesthetics and visual dynamics than the paintings. Still, all the pieces bear Rodgers’ distinct artistic signature. The video work crystallizes in viewers standing next to each other the isolation and uncertainty of a pseudo-real proximity. The mixed media works further reveal how illusory each medium itself is, and how much any language is an accidental, always evolving human construction rather than a reflection of some certain reality.
Rodgers’ famously deep dimensional oils, the products of his commitment to sustaining the most tried and true of artistic technologies, are in themselves illusion-making machinery that is strikingly extended by the palpably dimensional boxes nearby, both the lightboxes and the video cubes. And all around and interwoven are the sketches, mixed media, and black and white photographs. Each work is a world unto itself with its own rules, relations, and sub-cultures.
In the face of some of the images, there is a high-minded tendency to say no, no, no—which soon turns into yes, but, and finally yes and yes again. Sooner or later, and usually, sooner, Rodgers will grab you in your gut. The power of the visceral reaction will be significant. Some people have to walk away. But whether it’s shaking a head or raising an eyebrow or feeling something unmistakably and positively sensual, Rodgers goes for it and he gets it, and we can’t help getting something. The gallery becomes a galvanic experiment, and the electric charge we get, though sometimes a bit of a jolt, is mostly a tingling buzz of pure pleasure. Our exit into the outer world is suffused with an affirmation of the wonders of artifice.
What we call nature, human or otherwise, is so completely concealed that we are struck by whatever vestiges we happen upon, the rare glimpse of an as-yet-unmanipulated shred of non-human presence. And yet even our perception of the natural is now suspect. What am I making of that cloud, that moon, that bird flight? I am making what I have been made to make of it. Now Rodgers demands that I see it all, see it in its deep convolutions of remediation. Rodgers is the subject, agent, and meaning of all the works that he produces, in whatever medium. And yet he is not visible in the works, not as an object. He offers his subjectivity openly, joyfully. He says, in effect, “Look what I see.” And the corollary, so obvious in his openness of exploration, experimentation, and investigation is, “What do you see in it?” He looks at human beings who are looking, questioning, ignoring, searching, finding, rejecting, and retracing their steps.
What does it mean? It means you are standing still and regarding the meaning of your own time and effort and values. Do you want to be as rapt (as in wrapped up in something powerful) and embroiled as these figures are? Do you yearn for a passion that would break the bonds of your own self-restraint and self-respect and prudence? Or do you simply love to have your eyes lapped in the waves of color and texture and shape?
These are artifacts of a culture screaming into being. They are fantasies of a dead culture recollected and resurrected. The human details are hyper-real against the backdrops and foregrounds of superhuman color and non-human shapes.
The models are posing for their lives. Their postures are statements of identity cast into riveting relief by the relentless repetitions of our so-called real worlds, consumed in rapid transmissions and grinding transactions and adventureless transport.
Do you require truth? Then lock yourself in a box and tabulate your breathing rate and pulse. Anything outside that box is a cornucopia of illusions if not self-delusions. Every thought, every image, every word compounds the dimensions of the illusion you inhabit. Unknown geometries entangle our perception. Feeling is the safest thing. You can feel excited, afraid, hopeful, doomed, wary, or wonderful. That is nothing. But to try to say something of unmistakable meaning—to try to understand the purest formulation of another? Preposterous posturing. Not the pure body linguistics of the Rodgers figures, whose admirably artificial angles are the finest instances of representational humanity we have these days.
The human in the dark box or cave, in cave darkness and cave deafness, seeing only the flashes inside the eyelids, hearing nothing but breathing and heartbeat and perhaps the frightening intensity of one’s own voice…comes into the gallery space and plunges into the wormhole of a lightbox….
Rodgers re-frames the world for us, simplifies our complicated relations by purifying our receptivities to light and shape and texture and color and vector.
What is TR about, up to, getting at? He is training us to un-see. To un-think. He is driving us back to a pre-verbal, pre-historical, pre-disciplinary state, from which we can sort through the hodgepodge of inventions we’re habituated to use. Inventions of attitude, inventions of filters, of screens, of ways of organizing the information as if it is normal. As if it is useful.
There are no useful norms, unless we devote ourselves to efficiency. Unless we restrict ourselves to machine ethos, there are no privileged ways of accepting and rejecting stimuli—or repackaging and broadcasting them.
In the end the metaphysical nature of the subject dissolves under the weight of the palpable world of objects: things we choose to touch, things we choose to privilege, things we choose to think about, including mostly pre-packaged ideas of what a man or a woman or an act or an emotions is.
Rodgers refuses to allow the blackboxing of our senses. What we get from the world is not simply an efficient miracle, it is a complicated bunch of actually noticeable inputs, many of them so seductive that we cannot even imagine wanting to resist. But we are only the helplessly dominated agents of the Other if we withhold the most beautiful, the most alluring, and the most intense sensuous experience. By exposing ourselves to the revelations of what is inherently ours—color, energy, shape, texture, motion—we are quite simply re-minded.
This is an artist who eradicates the bland and the merely unusual. He banishes the everyday oddity and the continuous call to judgment.
By removing and removing and removing, he finally replaces the subject in the hollow center of the self. At so many removes, we see the unconscious artifice we all resort to in conceiving, designing, fabricating, sustaining, and now and then timidly evolving our all-too-modest, unambitious selves. Rodgers wants to help us erase all the compromised sketches we’ve made of ourselves, our networks, and our imagined tomorrow mornings and invites us to face the blank canvas, the blind lens, the unsharpened pencil.
He is a student of gravity, of air, of light, of flesh, of fabric, of fashion, of interior space, of image, of myth. The models he employs, rather than wounding us and provoking us to extremities of self-mutilation and cosmetic surgery, allow us to re-model our vision of the person as the site of metaphysical distress; the fashion invites us to refashion our varieties of reasoning regarding the images we project.
We drag the baggage of our precious notions about drawing, oil painting, photography, cinema, and video into the gallery, and after huffing and puffing through a few halting interactions with Rodgers’ work we might not notice that these albatrosses have mercifully abandoned us to the visual delights of the products of the Jamesian madman in his studio. Rodgers, by doing whatever he feels like doing, inadvertently frees us of our weighty commitments to art. His revels in the endless pleasure of manipulating materials and perceptions are contagious. We are at play ourselves. Everything is a vehicle for vibrations, waves, particles, messages.
Rodgers unmasks the lust for material things that capitalism keeps under the bourgeois veil that is compulsive consumerism. As he exaggerates and celebrates the excesses of personal freedom, he accentuates the fundamental principle of the social-commercial-personal nexus: that we can choose anything, but that we need so much help choosing that we are very likely to select default positions and imitate what is offered. He plunders the worn-out icons and trends and re-inscribes them in his work in a hundred ways that make the old once again a wonder.
Rodgers disdains any claim to truth and opts for a claim to experience: to creating an experience for the eye, the mind, and now the ear. Instead of footsteps and muffled conversation, the gallery is bathed in the dark warm aural surround of a cello, a nearly human voice that wakes us to our drowning tendencies.
The agency of the viewer is challenged because Terry Rodgers is not afraid of the amoral qualities of beauty. Are we to be swept along against our supposed judgment, rooted in our quotidian ethics, or must we heroically resist? Rodgers’ work is powerful enough to permit us to transcend the false dichotomies between morality and beauty, beauty and ugliness, order and chaos.
The void at the center of the subject is the greatest threat to the self, so we frantically stuff it with the otherness most readily at hand. Rodgers crams so much recognizable stuff in each work that we are forced to flush out our subjectivity and regard ourselves as objects of otherness.
We invent new fields of study because of our failures in the past. Image studies, communicology, what-have-you—they will all come to the same end. In the meantime, Rodgers is making things.
Instead of legitimizing the frantic acquisition and expression, or even commenting upon it, Rodgers pushes the boundaries and overlays the layers until the confection of culture is ready to topple over into our laps. The menu of choices explodes into an atomized universe of alternative realities that dazzles our modest desires and baffles our supposedly cosmopolitan tastes. The sheer joy of the eye and the mind in negotiation becomes the thing again.
Jim Zimmerman is an associate professor in The School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication at James Madison University, Virginia, USA.