Terry Rodgers - The Good Life

By Lilly Wei

Terry Rodgers' newest suite of paintings is more resplendent than ever. His closely observed, meticulously rendered recreations of affluent life with their elliptical, enigmatic look at civilization and its discontents once again showcase his great skills as a draughtsman and a reporter. Hovering somewhere between the edited and the unedited, the real and the contrived, his evocative tableaux, often based on photography and carefully orchestrated on a computer prior to painting, have the look of cinematic stills. Suitably horizontal as if on wide screen, they represent a moment snatched from the continuum of real time, held as if on pause, but about to spool forward. Posh hothouse colors with the sheen of money make up the artist's elegantly harmonious palette with their sweep of pale light, their seamless transitions between darks and lights. His taut, fragile compositions—in this instance all depictions of multi-figure groups-are richly nuanced reprises of the human comedy commenting sotto voce on the way some of us live now. The tone is understated but tense, the coolness and detachment spiked by an almost imperceptible anxiety and discomfort. Characteristically staged in luxuriously-appointed, well-tended houses with their gardens, lawns, terraces and pools, his sleek,prosperous inhabitants are caught in tellingly awkward poses, signaling their wariness, self-consciousness and uncertainty, disturbingly at odds with what should be the festivity of the occasion.

Rodgers, who works in the venerable tradition of paintings about manners, can be compared to Eric Fischl, most closely to the early works of the artist. But Rodgers is more sexually sublimated, his world less harsh, less potentially transgressive, his brushwork gentler, less roiled. Nonetheless, each painting is a similarly complex story of contemporary relationships that radiates an existential emptiness, its glamour a frangible shell. His men look successful but disengaged, disconnected.His women in particular, beautifully dressed, stylishly coiffed, do not seem to be enjoying themselves. They are extraordinarily, enviably slender, as if inculcated from an early age with the mantra that you can't be too thin or too rich. These golden women, all angles, hollows and firm muscles, their polished, pampered skin gleaming, highlighted, are comparable to the gilded statuary that they are sometimes paired with, both trophies, as in Apollonian Rhythms or Between Two Worlds. Their allure, however, is without heat, cooled by dissatisfaction, by a suppressed yearning. Withdrawing into themselves, they seem to be asking,is this all, unable to express what it is that might be missing, what more they could want or how to disrupt the hypnotic surfaces of their glossy, picture-perfect existence.

Rodgers uses a number of consistent devices in all his paintings. One is to place one, two or three figures dramatically in the foreground, close-up and cropped, to span the height of the canvas or just under. They function as a kind of repoussoir figure that leads you into the painting which has the closed depth of a stage set; his twist on the convention is that they also act as barriers that you must first acknowledge and assimilate before proceeding further. Another signature gambit is little eye contact; almost all glances swerve obliquely. Exceptions occur in a few paintings such as This Delicate Equipoise. However, the glance that ensues is between viewer and painted subject, a dapper man with curly hair faintly touched with gray whoseeyes are not on the bevy of beauties before him as it seems at first but directed outward, toward us, with an unspoken question, a certain suspicion, a certain complicity. Between Two Worlds and They Were Right Behind Us, also have two participants who engage our eye, smiling at us as if we shared a secret. It is a version of the Hitchcockian trope, where the director enters his own creation. An intrusion, an aside interrogating the boundaries of illusion and reality, voyeurism and spectatorship, they act as surrogates for the artist who has confided his vision to us.

A Rodgers painting reveals itself in its many superlative details, ironically juxtaposing the good life, the life of material plenty with emptiness, offering another theory of the leisure class. The American dream has strangely, surprisingly failed which Rodgers portrays with great familiarity and sympathy if also objectivity, with "love and ruthlessness" as another critic, Richard Vine, so aptly observed. In these opulent, perceptively choreographed, quietly desperate scenes of unrequited, unidentified, unplaceable desire, Terry Rodgers unveils a subtly disproportionate, disjointed world where life is elsewhere, waiting to happen.

Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic and independent curator.
2002

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