Agnes Etheringon Art Centre, 5 January - 28 April 2002
Since the early 1980's Toronto painter Brent Roe has been exhibiting his work in parallel spaces, artist collective exhibitions and in small annual and biannual shows at Wynick Tuck Gallery. He first gained attention for a narrative cartoon-style of painting that commented ironically on cold war politics. By the mid-eighties he had replaced the caricature style and political references with a looser, schematic figurative rendering accompanied by captions and texts describing conundrums, solipsisms and random streams of consciousness.
The essential components of Brent Roe's mature style have changed little since that time, but in spite of that his work has evolved markedly. Figure ground relationships, paint handling, colour, surface texture, canvas sizes and proportions have constantly changed in relationship to each other in a concentrated on-going activity reminiscent of a chemist's careful measuring and testing of the volatility of his compounds. Through the waxing and waning of stylistic and ideological enthusiasms in the 1980's and 1990's it became apparent that Brent Roe had been focused on a specific and unshakable mission. Just what this mission is, however, remains a slippery subject.
In the quest to understand Brent Roe's mission I organized a five-year, 31 piece survey at Cambridge Galleries in 1997. John Massier tackled an ambitious 10 year, 93 work survey of Roe's work at the Koffler Gallery in 1998. The third and current survey, organized by John Armstrong and Michelle Jacques for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, falls somewhere in the middle of the previous two. In the quantity of work and in its 1992 starting date, it is closer to the Cambridge survey. But like the Koffler exhibition, this show also contains a selection of sketchbooks and the baroque touch of the artist's idiosyncratic miniature graffiti on the walls between the paintings. Also in a manner similar to the Koffler survey, the conventional horizontal alignment of paintings at eye level is supplemented by the additional hanging of works high above – salon style. An added feature of the Agnes Etherington exhibition is the existence of a ping-pong table in the middle of the gallery. Demonstrating perhaps a newfound tongue-in-cheek interest in the decorative arts, the surface of the ping pong table and its paddles have been painted by Roe in his characteristic manner.
Roe's characteristic manner is typically a combination of a painterly abstraction with ironic, deflating texts. Often, the texts seem to mock not only the pretensions of painting, but of all redeeming notions of art. The belief that some larger meaning can be divined from studying art, for example, is derided by texts like "truth and meaning can be found within 5 metres of this spot" or "All those seeking meaning line up behind this canvas," configured either as the visual voice balloons of declaiming cartoon figures or slogans painted on an abstract and expressionist ground. Expression, essence, truth and genius, and other popular notions associated with art receive similar treatment at the hands of Roe.
Of course irony and sarcasm can quickly wear thin, and thinness is the most common criticism leveled against Roe's work. This perception is not diminished by the institutional and logistical imperatives of both commercial and public galleries to emphasize solo exhibitions. I don't think I have ever left a Brent Roe exhibition wanting more, and in fact the artist has a history of crowded solo exhibitions, which have included just too many works. It is my experience that these paintings work best not in solo exhibitions where they can begin to seem like a string of one-liners (and where one begins to suspect that he's got more than a million of 'em), but in-group shows. There, surrounded by extroverted expressions of earnestness and virtuosity, the negative ions thrown off by Roe's paintings create deep rich spaces of calm and existential awareness – a cold steely clarifying of the moment – not unlike the way a great wit can at once celebrate and expose the pretensions of the guests at a party.
Never-the-less, a solo survey exhibition gives us the opportunity to examine constant thematic and stylistic devices and the conscious changes that the artist engages over a period of time. On the occasion of the Agnes Etherington exhibition, the organizers provided interpretative assists in the form of a colour-illustrated catalogue with an essay by curator John Armstrong and an interview with the artist by Michelle Jacques. A panel discussion focusing on Roe's use of language in his paintings was held toward the end of the exhibition. An added bonus was the recorded audio guide conducted by the artist.
Armstrong's essay introduces the focus and the scope of Roe's art-about-art commentary and Jacque's interview reveals the artist's playful, evasive, reflective and iconoclastic character. On the audio guide Roe offers up startling details about the iconology of the paintings in the exhibition. It is worth listening just to be able to experience the depth of his engagement with the ideas he presents. The symposium was less successful, focusing perhaps too much on the history of texts and voice balloons in art and not enough on what makes these devices effective in Roe's paintings. Two comparisons made by Armstrong at the symposium, however, were illuminating.
Beyond the common use of text, the proximity of Roe's work to that of the senior American artist Ed Ruscha had not previously presented itself to me so forcefully. However, their similar preoccupation with the tensions between image and words and abstraction and representation contribute to a shared ascetic mysticism and a riveting evocation of the existential present. This is an aesthetic which has roots in the early modernism of Picasso and Braque and which had its most theatrical presentation in the work of Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists. It is no accident that these are among the artists cited as influences by Roe in the catalogue interview.
But why text? Why use language in a painting, in a picture, which, as the saying goes, is worth at least a thousand words? It seems to me that question is partially addressed by another image cited in the panel discussion. An Annunciation by Simone Martini showing the Virgin Mary being informed by the angel Gabriel of the immaculate conception and the impending birth of Jesus. In an attempt to mimic the way words are directed from one person to another, Martini has laid text on the surface of the painting in a straight line beginning at the angel's mouth on the left and heading toward of the head of Mary. Language and text in the biblical sense are traditionally associated with the divine revelation of God's laws and interventions. Applied to the painting's surface, text makes the image revelatory.
Brent Roe's text balloons function as gem-like personal revelations, and for the viewer they work like a cleverly pointed reality check. I suspect however, that the issue for the artist is not his use of language in painting, rather, it is what painting and language can uniquely achieve when combined, for Roe is first and foremost a painter. Every one of his paintings foregrounds the act of painting, with references to painterly abstraction and other historical styles, or in his decorative doodles, flourishes and graffiti inspired markings.
T. J. Clark, in his fascinating study of Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat, draws attention to the two letters in the painting and contrasts them with the great expanse of scumbled, burnt umber that occupies the canvas's upper half. Clark sees this large area of dark ground as the objective reality of paint, the “endless, meaningless objectivity produced by paint not quite finding its object.” He contrasts that with the deception of the Charlotte Corday letter in Marat's hand, and the trompe d'oeil illusionism of the letter on the plinth that appears to project into the viewer's space. In the visual telling of this revolutionary tragedy, illusion and deception are in a struggle against truth.
It is text that clarifies the activity of painting, and brings us in someway closer to its uncanniness. But it is also painting that makes language present, frames it – makes it more real. And making both painting and language more real, may just be Brent Roe's mission.