Consciousness, to paraphrase Pascal, differentiates humanity from just so many blades of grass.1 Maybe it fell to the visual arts in the twentieth-century to remind us of this. What better way to illustrate enlightenment than in the single, instantaneously apprehended image?
Beginning in the war ravaged Europe of the 1920's and in the war time America of the 1940's, abstract artists liberated themselves from the responsibility of reproducing images from life and discovered the powerful and liberating possibilities of making art in the existential present. These artists no longer saw the canvas as a window through which to view a metaphorical diorama. They saw it as a flat surface, with which to record the spontaneous, the accidental and the physical properties of painting. The new painting was to be about being alive "to the moment" – to the chaos of unmediated feeling. The artwork did not, nor could not, describe, represent or symbolize this new attitude. It became a record of a lived event or, existed as a self contained, parallel entity.
Brent Roe's paintings are not abstract or non-objective in the commonly understood meaning of the terms. Yet, he is an inheritor of this legacy of abstract art and its influence carries through to the present day. Strongly affected by abstract art in Toronto in the seventies, and its promise of personal freedom, Roe for a time painted energetic, non-objective, abstract canvases. Toward the close of the decade, however, he and many other young artists at the time experienced a profound discontent with the received culture of abstraction.
"It was getting outside of a mind set, getting into the unconscious, away from the linear way of thinking, once you start to smear paint around you kind of get lost in it. I'd spent a good couple of years painting abstract -- going at it with a bit of a fervour. Then I got into figurative. I started to feel that the abstract just became another academic theory."2
The younger generation of artists to which Roe belonged was influenced by the convergence of political issues in the early eighties. A renewed cold war and arms build-up, economic recession, environmentalism and feminism brought into relief the degree to which the culture of abstract art had become cloistered, and had drifted away from contemporary life. It had become, quite simply, just another "genre" – an academic style with its own rules and standards -- removed from any direct, experienced connection to the present. The old principals and taboos of the abstractionists started to seem stale and academic. Young artists experiencing the turmoil of these years became less reticent about making direct references in their work to political issues.3
Brent Roe's initial forays away from abstraction were toward images that had environmental and cold war references. In an early painting entitled Two Ways of Passing an Island (1980),4 Roe contrasted a benign storybook nature, represented by a whale swimming in one direction, to a malevolent humanity, represented by an air plane dropping a bomb, flying in the opposite direction.
One painting in the Cambridge Galleries exhibition which may trace its roots to this earlier, political period in the artist's work is Dead Poor People (1992). On a swirling white ground a simply painted, thin black line frames an image of the earth, as seen from space. Below the black-line frame the artist inscribed the three words "dead poor people."
Dead Poor People may be about all of the people who have lived without having a monument in their name. Perhaps it is a cartoon of a memorial that questions the role of individuals and those we choose to memorialize. But what is political in this work is not so much an issue of current affairs as it is an issue of perception and the manipulation of symbols in general. The mere fact of being an artist in the 1990's is an implied rejection of mass marketed images of proscribed meanings and values. Every aspect of Dead Poor People is a rejection of the warm embrace of the production values and ideology of the corporate media environment.
Separated by a dozen years, Two Ways of Passing an Island and Dead Poor People describe not so much a political program as an aesthetic. It is a cultivated, naive, style of lazy, enervated lines, and weightless, schematically described, floating forms. In the 1980 painting, Roe renders the bomber a rubber child's toy. In the later painting, he contrasts the thinly painted floating earth with the baldly wooden epigram "dead, poor, people." Aimless painterly gestures are anchored by the goal oriented alliteration Perfectly Purposeful People (1995). An articulated phrase of corporate optimism, Rational Future, floats above a white surface tortured with scumbled black lines and etched with graffiti and tattoo like markings (1997).
Contemporary life is characterized by a universe of expanding emotional and perceptual complexity. If art is a politically redemptive act, it is not because it can instruct people. It is because aesthetics can model the existence of new forms and new perceptions and can validate our most elusive and tangled feelings. In Brent Roe's work we can describe an "aesthetic of ambivalence," where the authority of each statement or gesture is undermined by its opposite. It is an ironic, self-conscious aesthetic. It is informed by a knowledge of art history and an interest in the processes of perception. It is also an expression of the lived sense of the difficulty of making an unequivocally authoritative artistic statement.
"In painting, make that experience of perception a real one, an honest one."5
With text and imagery constantly in a state of opposition these paintings cannot lead anywhere, or better said, they cannot lead to any other place than the paintings themselves. Titles such as Is (1993), Eternity Is Amongst Us (1995), Where It's At (1995), Less Is More (1996), and Is Often Desiring (1996) are notable in their use of intransitive verb constructions to this end.
The earliest paintings in the exhibition, Hi, Dead Poor People, and Fate (all 1992), Hidden Meaning, Aspirations, Awaken From Your Trance, and Is (all 1993) mark a break with previous, more densely painted work and call upon a simplified, almost minimalist aesthetic. These paintings all have in common a gesturally active, swirling, white painted ground above which hover texts and images. The painting Is shows the artist making reference to his heritage of abstract colour field and expressionist painting. In the middle of the white ground he has painted a cartoon of a colour field painting. It is a circle in a square, bisected diagonally and broken into the complimentary contrasting colours of red-green and blue-orange. In the centre of the cartoon he has painted the word "IS."
In Is Roe consciously combines the elements of gestural expressionist painting, which he associates with the unconscious, and colour field painting, which he associates with a pure retinal experience of colour and form. The text connects Roe to conceptual, text based and interventionist artists who critique the politics of language and mass media. Related in form, the innocent and disarming Hi achieves the same end with understatement and humour. A minimalist painting within a painting – a black outlined, yellow ochre square hovers again over the active white painted ground. Within it a purposefully painted diagonal black line moves from side to side to side. Dangling from the end of the line, contained within the shape of a droplet, is the word "Hi." It is an anti-message – a minimalist, two letter greeting. Its "moment" is much like a touch on the sleeve. In tying these three historical movements together in these paintings Roe underlines their common goal. Namely, to create a fissure – a short-circuit in our programmed expectations -- to create an experience of the moment.
The charts Bacon of Hope, Chart #1, and Chart #5 (all 1994) continue to employ the agitated white ground. Employing the pun to great effect in the Bacon of Hope, Roe has rendered a thinly painted slab of bacon surrounded by the words fertilizer, jazz, chips and sex. Like Hi, it is disarmingly banal, mundane. The summary, thin painting and the random references to apparently unconnected commodities like fertilizer and chips suggest the artist may be connected to a dangerously dissolute and entropic state.
"Went out to buy some bacon one day and did a painting of a strip of bacon. It's about trying to find hope and having these disparate words floating around."6
Seven searching words resisted being a mistake, The world will not end any time soon, and Compost Your Theories (all 1994) make direct reference to the work of the American abstractionist Philip Guston. A Guston-like crosshatch of shaky, pastel brushstrokes again floats above the common swirling white ground. The Guston references are topped with a text icing that seems to struggle against the indeterminacy of the paint. The command "Compost Your Theories" and the affirmative "The World Will Not End Anytime Soon" struggle for authority on a shifting ground. The anti-message – unlike the conventional Cassandra, there is essentially nothing to report here – makes for a wistful painting. It is a post-adolescent, reality without angst.
"No point in behaving like things are going to end, because they won't."7
Where It's At, Perfectly Purposeful People, Expand Your Moment, Eternity Is Amongst Us, Real Meets Real, Decorative Sun (all of 1995), and Is Often Desiring, (1996) mark a stylistic change for the artist. The active white ground is replaced by a transparent polymer sizing over a raw canvas. The thin, hesitatingly transparent applications of paint have been replaced by solid opaque colours. The imagery and text still seem to float in the centre of the canvas. Speaking about the painting Where It's At, Roe relates the text to the act of painting and the viewer's experience of it in the moment, suggesting that "where it's at," is on the canvas, or perhaps in other words, "what you see is what you get." The text is a play on the well-known hipster saying, a kind of campy finger snapping, jive talking satire of academic art criticism.8
Soft on Space, Please Position Your Poetry Within These Parameters, and Less Is More, (all 1996), mark the artist's shift to acrylic paint and with it, a greater opacity and illustration board quality to the imagery. In these paintings the artist may be less involved with the act of painting and more interested in conceptual and perceptual issues. Less Is More is a flesh toned ground covered by scumbled white lines, pink lozenge forms and green dots. It features a central image which appears to be the content of a large blue lava lamp. It is skewered by black lines on the ends of which are supported candles and skulls and flames and red droplets. Floating in white biomorphic balloons is the text "less, is, more."
Beyond the immediate contrast of the functionalist credo with the spontaneous and emblematically kitschy, Less is More signals perhaps a new attitude by the artist toward the canvas. The figures and text in his most recent body of work Autodogmatic Trip (1996), Rational Future, Twin Heads of Yes and No, Together We Can Perfect the Moment, All those seeking meaning line up behind this canvas, Strangely Content, and I Am Dreaming About Time (all 1997) seem etched into, or to exist within an enveloping space. The ground has become an ersatz body, a living organism. It is no longer a hypnotic swirl of paint -- it has become a torturous tangle -- literally a web in I Am Dreaming About Time. Roe's figuration has become less idiosyncratic too, resembling more the schematics of graffiti and the obsessions of adolescents who doodle on their notebooks, running shoes and jean jackets.
Painting was, and always remained for Roe, about being alive to the chaotic, unmediated "moment", as the title of the painting Together We Can Perfect the Moment (1997) reminds us. Autodogmatic Trip features a tangled, scumbled and tattooed ground with the bare description of a recessional space. An articulated text, "auto-dog-ma-tic," is enclosed in biomorphic balloons. The word "TRIP" is constructed of three-dimensional block letters at various angles, inscribed with paisley, stripes and wavy coloured lines. Like cartoon figures, the letters seem to shake with energy. "Trip," and things "trippy" recall the descriptive slang of the drug culture of the late sixties. Mining our personal and cultural past for material, Roe uncomfortably reminds us of the explosive and introverted mind of both a personal and cultural adolescence. But what is "autodogmatic" about it? Maybe it is a neologism – a conflation of "dogma" and "autoerotic" – about the artist setting his own goals. Or maybe this "trip" is a voyage of solipsistic reverie.
1."Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. . ."
Blaise Pascal, Selections from the Thoughts, ed. & trans. By Arthur H. Beattie, Northbrook: AHM Publishing, 1965, p. 30.
2. Interview with the artist, November 1997.
3. See "Discussion" and Clark, T. J., "More on the Differences between Comrade Greenberg and Ourselves," in Modernism and Modernity: The Vancouver Conference Papers, edited by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbault and David Solkin, pp. 165-194,Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, 1981.
4. Exhibited in Artventure, The Royal Bank of Canada, Royal Bank Plaza, Toronto, July 10 - August 29, 1980.
5. Telephone interview with the artist, January 1998.
6. Telephone interview with the artist, November 1997.
7. Telephone interview with the artist, November 1997.
8. A parallel could be made with the street scam that goes something like this:
"Five dollars says that I know where you got your shoes."
"You got your shoes on your feet."
Catalogue of works in the exhibition
1. Hi, 1992, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
2. Dead Poor People, 1992, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
3. Fate, 1992, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
4. Hidden Meaning, 1993, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
5. Aspirations, 1993, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
6. Awaken From Your Trance, 1993, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
7. Is, 1993, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
8. Bacon of Hope, 1994, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
9. Chart #5, 1994, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
10. Chart #1, 1994, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
11. Seven searching words resisted being a mistake, 1994, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
12. The world will not end any time soon, 1994, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
13. Compost Your Theories, 1994, oil on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
14. Where It's At, 1995, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
15. Perfectly Purposeful People, 1995, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
16. Expand Your Moment, 1995, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
17. Eternity Is Amongst Us, 1995, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
18. Real Meets Real, 1995, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
19. Decorative Sun, 1995, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
20. Time to Rhyme, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
21. Soft on Space, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
22. Please Position Your Poetry Within These Parameters, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
23. Less Is More, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
24. Autodogmatic Trip, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
25. Is Often Desiring, 1996, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
26. Rational Future, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
27. Twin Heads of Yes and No, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
28. Together We Can Perfect the Moment, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
29. All those seeking meaning line up behind this canvas, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 45.72 x 60.96 cm.
30. Strangely Content, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.
31. I Am Dreaming About Time, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 60.96 x 60.96 cm.