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Liz Wylie

Bill Rodgers
Paul Kuhn Fine Arts, Calgary, February 24 - March 10 1984

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #5/6, Summer 1984.
[ 920 words ]

Bill Rodgers shies away from anyone's attempt to link his work with Neo-Expressionism or New Figurative painting. He does not feel he shares any major concerns with artists in these modes and, though one could point to the fact that he does do large scale, figurative, painterly work with references to art history, Rodgers's work lacks the ironic, self-conscious edge of so much of the new German and American painting, especially its mockery or parodying of expression itself. In Rodgers's canvases we see quite a different attitude. The work seems sincere, genuine, straightforward, and yet, in no way is it simple-minded or unsophisticated.

In four large scale canvases from this exhibition a dark-haired male figure is featured, set into environments that combine both outdoor and indoor elements. Nature and Culture have come together. The paintings have a stark and haunting quality, perhaps due to their being rendered, not from direct observation, but from dredged up memories. Rodgers uses paint flatly but blends it subtly, indicating each object quite precisely and distinctly. The four large paintings, Ranch 82 (1983), Ranch 83 (1983), The Connoisseur (2nd Street Version) (1984) and Task (1983) take some thinking about. Their imagery is not instantly accessible. One begins slowly to realize that any given object in the paintings acts as a symbol, a signifier, and a point of reference to whole worlds of meaning. For example, the Chinese bowl with chopsticks on the Navajo-like rug in Ranch 83 alludes not only to the domestic side of Rodgers's life (the mundane physical acts like eating in which we must all participatee), but also is a reference t the artist's passion for Chinese food, and as well to the Eastern world and way of thought — the contemplative life. Likewise with the haystack / grain elevator / ziggurat motif which appears in Ranch 82, Ranch 83 and again in two smaller paintings in the exhibition, Prayers: Study and Task: Study, both from 1983. This shape functions on various levels of meaning too, as an image of the harvest, of food storage and of religion.

And what of the dark haired man? In terms of art history, his thin, angular body and black hair recall Picasso's harlequin period figures. The man's hinged movements and flatness are similar to figures in French Romanesque sculpture. His rather cramped poses call to mind Max Beckmann, whom Rodgers says he has looked at intensely. Could there also be a reference to the artist's time spent in Mexico in 1976? The man is a Latin type, and the paintings in general are evocative of the south, with their warm earth colours and smooth surfaces, rather than strongly resembling the Alberta ranch country that they ostensibly represent. The dark haired man cannot, certainly, be read as a simple self-portrait of Rodgers. He has been called into being as a sort of spiritual everyman, perhaps, representing our struggle for integration of the fragments which make up our lives and to which the artist refers in his paintings. In Task the man is bent double, cutting sticks with a scythe, a somewhat poetic reference to the artist's role in helping his parents on their ranch every spring and summer. In each of the ranch paintings, the dark haired figure is held down below a high horizon line. He is linked, inextricably, with his chores and environment.

The works on paper in the exhibition represent a completely different activity on Rodgers's part. They are playful, loose, open and relaxed collages, which he admits as being somewhat self-indulgent. They revolve around the theme of personal tastes, food, for instance, in Huevos Rancheros from 1983 and music in Man and His Guitar (1983) which features a reproduction of Elvis juxtaposed with a Cubist guitar. These pieces are generated with quite different strategies than are the canvases, and do not carry as profound a content.

Rodgers first began exploring representational art in the late 1970's. Previously he had felt no choice but to pursue abstraction, having been a member of that generation fed on American Post Painterly Abstraction or Colour Field painting in art school. He graduated from Calgary's Alberta College of Art in 1975, then spent several months in Mexico at the Institute Allende in San Miguel. It was through his association with such figurative artists in Calgary as Ron Moppett, Evan Penny, John Hall and Quentin Caron that he felt allowed to introduce shapes, and eventually the human figure into his paintings in 1979. In the early 1980s the artist dealt with art historical allusions and referents with an upbeat, campy feeling. His recent work, howwever, as seen in this exhibition, has become both more subtle and varied in its appropriations and has a more serious mood.

Despite the levels of meaning in the work, the paintings do not have a contrived or intellectual feeling. They function visually first, and are moving, powerfully affective pieces. Colour, paint handling and composition all work well. Rodgers is an intelligent, aware, enquiring artist. He is proof that a painter can work away from a large art centre, and through being in touch with and drawing from his region, produce work all the better for his location. The recent paintings are wonderfully engaging, yet enigmatic allegories, and after viewing, remain memorable experiences.


Vanguard, Vol. 13 #5/6, Summer 1984.


Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.


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