Terry Rodgers - Halloween Breakfast

By Richard Vine, Managing Editor and Writer for Art in America

Terry Rodgers, a painter whose natural facility might easily have tempted him into mere illustrationism, has instead taken on a rigorous artistic project. There is, in Western art, no genre more subtly entwined with history-or more challenging to an artist's abilities-than that of social reportage. For the form demands not just the convincing depiction of individual personalities (already daunting enough) but the evocation of an entire way of life. The artist must possess psychological acuity, a nuanced familiarity with the chosen milieu, and the formal inventiveness to conceive information-rich yet concise images.

In this genre, the selection of a point of view, both literal and metaphoric, and the choice of telling details must convince us that we, as witnesses, know the subjects better than they know themselves. Finally, to this combination of love and ruthlessness must be added the sheer technical skill to execute one's vision in a persuasively "realistic" fashion.

The Ambassador's SonRodgers, who has these gifts in abundance, applies them unblinkingly-to situations that are at once utterly contemporary yet timeless. To study his scenes of interaction (and non-interaction) between family members, of "pleasant" social gatherings, or of solitary figures surrounded by their daily accouterments is to be reminded just how much of our mental life is disguised and sublimated. This artist places us, unapologetically, in the position of voyeurs. Our moral queasiness is only redoubled when we consider that such glimpses into the private lives of others often reveal the preoccupations of the artist himself-and of we who "look" through him.

Some of Rodgers's works, like The Ambassador's Son, are virtuoso pieces of indirection. At first glance, we see nothing but a swank, but apparently innocuous, cocktail party. The "son" leans forward toward a mostly unseen female guest. All seems right with the world, until we notice the racial uniformity of the gathering-which suggests that the long-haired Asian youth might never have found himself among these country-club Anglos, were it not for his father's diplomatic station.

Quickly, then, we take in the sharp blood-red nails that hover in front of the youth's groin, the short-skirted woman who sucks morsels from her fingers to his right, the woman behind him who is draped on the back of a red velvet armchair like a bejeweled odalisque. Suddenly, all the party elements-the champagne, the tuxedos, the fruits and cheeses, the bald heads and bland faces-seem to bespeak a darker reality: one in which global politics, experienced here on an individual level, is a matter of seduction and exploitation, where everyone is either predator or carrion. In light of Pacific Rim history, is that leaning forward of the bespectacled, intelligent-looking ambassador's son the echo of a colonial bow or the harbinger of an imminent uprising? Perhaps it is both.

In other instances, Rodgers is more explicit-though no less disturbing. Halloween Breakfast exudes latent sexuality where we both expect and disapprove of it most: in the family. In an upper middle-class kitchen, a middle-aged couple in bathrobes read the newspaper and take their morning coffee-she with her ample breasts partially showing, he with his robe hanging open and his genitalia nonchalantly exposed, though a chair back just hides them from our view. Their young daughter, wearing a Dalmatian costume (a pop-culture sign for threatened innocence), reaches across the table (to dip a knife in a jar of red jam!) with a backward turn of the head that suggests an "unmasked" mistrust of the father behind her. A sexual dynamic animates the space itself, as it simultaneously zooms back and thrusts forward in the middle of picture plane, carrying our attention, willy-nilly, up the stairs toward the unseen bedrooms above. What strange disguises and disrobings, what childish games, we wonder, haunt this morning repast?

Halloween BreakfastFor all the fashionable theorizing of late about race, class, and gender, very few artists actually undertake the depiction of social markers and differences-probably because most lack the caste-specific knowledge and/or the painterly aptitude required. (Rodgers, by contrast, can lay claim to these prerequisites by virtue of his experience as both a commercial portrait painter and a muralist.) Indeed, when we invoke the modern masters of this study-of-manners form, our thoughts run to Sargent, Whistler, Chase and Degas-all turn-of-the-century figures, educated during the golden age of the narrative-driven, realist novel.

Today, we have lost faith in the omniscient viewpoint and in the long-term coherence of social lives. The deadpan subjectivism of Warhol, Alice Neel and Alex Katz has given rise to the self-contained worlds of Gregory Gillespie, Mark Greenwold, and Eric Fischl. (Formally and thematically, Rodgers is closest to Fischl-with the important difference that Rodgers typically adds visual information where Fischl deletes it.) We are left, by and large, with a record of shatterings and reassemblages, of life lived as a sequence of moments. Even in Rodgers's affluent universe, the remnants of a once-stable social order seem haunted by their own precariousness.

Our appreciation for Rodgers's powers of observation should not blind us to the fact that his images are painstakingly constructed, their myriad components sometimes assembled from scores of semi-staged photographs. Each vignette is engineered with such expert compositional ploys as the visual echo between the father's bald head and (we know) bare penis in Halloween Breakfast or the orchestration of multiple observers within the poolside scene we ourselves observe in Desert Oasis - a comment on spectatorship that extends even to a peripheral figure, a kind of artist-and-viewer surrogate, photographing the others. These works also highlight Rodgers's command of color and light-not only its direction and intensity, but also its relative warmth and coolness within various areas of illumination and shade.

Here, as throughout Rodgers's oeuvre, there is an admirable balance between painterliness and verisimilitude, imagistic precision and almost-juicy brushwork. Proficiency is thus harnessed for what is perhaps the most difficult of all artistic tasks: conveying the truth of our everyday circumstances.

Richard Vine, 1997