Terry Rodgers - Nudes

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

Credit Terry Rodgers with nerve. It is hard to think of a more difficult goal for any artist these days than to realistically depict the human nude—and somehow make the figures fresh and the tableaux meaningful to contemporary eyes. In a sense, he is taking on not only powerful current competitors (in Hollywood, the magazine business, and advertising) but the whole of Western art history as well.

Despite centuries of intimidating precedents, however, the nude study does have one large advantage: our automatic, indeed physiological, response to the bare human form. His CollectionElevate or disguise the facts as you will, in the end every nude figure is at some fundamental level about sex—or "desire," to use its polite-society name. That impulse, as a certain Dr. Freud and others have pointed out, can take some complicated turns.

Rodgers seems familiar—through observation or imaginative extrapolation, no doubt—with a broad range of libidinal variations. His Collection, for example, is a compendium of displaced lusts. Does the title refer to a collection of toy cars that includes the little red Ferrari stared at by the picture's naked boy? Or are we to infer an adult collector whose domain embraces not only the modernist's sculptures in the background but also, perhaps, the playful boy and the nude reclining woman featured poolside, front and center? In any case, we can scarcely avoid a shudder when the erotic nature of all "collecting" is evoked in the grown woman's, at once inquisitive and proprietary—i.e., acquisitive—gaze at the tender backside of the oblivious, bending boy. The youth, no longer quite a child, is here cast as an unsuspecting male sex-object; he, in turn, examines an expensive toy that might represent all market-bolstered enticements. In this wholly commodified world, there is cupidity enough to go around.

Rodgers does not shrink from such weighty significations. In art, the bare body often serves as a metaphor for the reality beneath appearances, for the inner truth exposed. So strong is its effect that some contemporary artists, like Pearlstein, are content to play with and against subliminal viewer expectation, while coyly equivocating on all potential narrative content. Others, like Fischl, dare to suggest more-or-less straightforward (if somewhat bizarre) story lines. Rodgers is very much of the latter camp, and even shares with Fischl both an intimate knowledge of the better-suburban bourgeoisie and a stylish color-photo-derived way of conceiving images. What distinguishes him is his painterly facility, his sharper-focus rendering, and his determination to supply precise visual information where Fischl opts for elision.

Thus in Dana's Pool, though the swimmers seem menaced by an unseen threat that is manifest to the viewer even if it has not yet fully dawned on the nude subjects, nothing in the physical setting is fudged for the painter's convenience or for Dana's Poolmelodramatic effect. Every detail of water texture, of towel color, of flesh tone, of sunlight angle is firmly in place: and each is naturalistically convincing.

Yet the painter's choices—all of which he shows—add up to a portrait of self-denied jeopardy. The inkiness of the water, the turning of most of the characters toward an invisible event in the many-windowed house, the hood-like black of the four central heads, the utter vulnerability of the topless blonde on the right-all these elements and more subvert the apparent security of this socially smug "skinny-dip" outing. Something is deeply amiss, and we can't help but suspect that it is related to the animalistic beefiness of the central male figure poised on the pool's edge, and to the wrestler-like forcefulness of the faceless woman emerging, with foreshortened projectivist impact, from the dark water at left. Her bodily gesture—all lumbering thighs, swinging breasts, and spring-loaded genitals—is an emblem for the upsurge of carnality out of the primordial subconscious.

In light of such images, it is easy to see Timepiece—a dead-on, unblinking study of a naked old man, slouched at his ease in an armchair as he stares unapologetically out at the viewer—as an icon of the ultimate menace: inevitable human decline. Here, as always, TimepieceRodgers communicates by holding nothing back and letting the chips (or, in this case, the wrinkles and sags and "you too" pointing toes) fall where they may.

Yes, naked human flesh scarcely ever fails to catch our attention. The real measure of an artist lies in what he does after our eyes are compulsively drawn to the image. Final success requires genuine thoughtfulness and consummate technique (which this artist also applies to nude photographs and small semi-figurative sculptures)—two qualities now in lamentably short supply. Rodgers' hand is fluent; but it is, above all, in making his figures vehicles for larger formal and philosophical concerns that this cunning realist so refreshingly excels.

Richard Vine, 1997


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