Do the Wrong Thing
In the studio of Les Rogers a famous quote from Jean-Luc Godard comes immediately to mind, or at least as best as can be recalled: “My movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end … Not necessarily in that order.” For every artist, every painting is begun, worked on, and eventually — whether weeks, months, or years have passed — is finished. For Rogers, the “not necessarily in that order” has little to do with a prescribed method, or even a sequence in which events unfold, and everything to do with his philosophy of painting. He has remarked, “If everything is too much in what seems to be its proper place, I have to go back and throw it off balance.” Rogers has a tendency to de-stabilize pictorial space, and he has turned this activity into a fine art. This intentional undermining of a picture gives it a tension and, at the same time, a (dis)equilibrium it would not otherwise have had. When the Godard quote is mentioned, Rogers counters with one of his own, also from memory. “Philip Guston once said something like, ‘It’s not the artist’s job to get things right.’”1 Guston was speaking in 1960, but this could have easily been expressed in the ’80s or ’90s by Martin Kippenberger, an artist who represents a kind of pure, irreverent freedom for the generation of painters to which Rogers belongs — or at least for some of them. But what, we might ask, is Rogers’ philosophy? In what does he believe? He has said, and without the least bit of irony, “I believe in broken paintings.”
Painting now, that is to say, Painting Post-Everything, should be an open field where there is no right or wrong, but a field in which the practice of painting cannot be approached uncritically. Painting still remains its own problem. For all of Kippenberger’s mischief-making and free play (at times having others make his paintings for him), he was seriously engaged with the question of painting. And although Guston shifted from the so-called heroics of abstract expressionism to cartoon-like figuration, he was as well. Painters such as Les Rogers are working in a post-Guston, post-Kippenberger world, post-Pop, post-appropriation, and on and on. Post-Everything, an artist can do anything, but the painter inherits the problems and contradictions of painting — the very things that keep it alive — and doesn’t easily shed them.
In notes Rogers made almost ten years ago, he quotes van Gogh: “I don’t follow any brushstroke system, I daub the paint onto the canvas in uneven strokes, which I leave as they are; patches of thickly laid on color, places here and there where the canvas is left bare, portions that are left completely unfinished, parts I’ve gone back over, rough qualities, the final result is (I’m inclined to believe) disturbing and irritating enough not to please people with preconceived ideas of technique.” The painting Big Girl Now (2003), based on a photo of Picasso’s model Sylvette David taken in the mid-’50s, with its raw canvas — a part of the canvas actually used as the palette to make the painting — a quickly sketched out cubist head on top of the nearly photo realist rendering of Sylevtte, and a vibrant blue form of broad brushstrokes that seems to hover in front of the canvas, and in front of the model’s head, both confirms and confounds these sentiments of van Gogh’s. The quietude and elegance of the painting completely transcends the artist’s every “wrong” move.
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
The tragedy of greatness is that it has nothing else to offer. This is certainly known by painters who are willing to throw a wrench into their own gears from time to time, to intentionally complicate their endeavor, to “do the wrong thing” — Charlene von Heyl, Jutta Koether, and Christopher Wool are a few who come readily to mind. These are also artists for whom beauty is only skin deep. In a notebook page from 1970, the painter Lee Lozano wrote, “Now here’s a good idea that’s ugly instead of beautiful.” Thirty years later, do we still live in a world where only good ideas are considered beautiful? Where beauty — and truth — are held highest? (In these times of profound deception, does the ideal of truth even exist anymore?) Painting today, like philosophy, is best understood not only as its own problem, but as a field where the very idea of answers or results is neither desirable nor necessarily productive. Whether abstract or representational — and do these terms lead anywhere useful anymore? — painting in some sense always describes the world. It should go without saying that the world around us is not as easily rendered as it once was. This may not pose a problem for photo-journalism, but painting, which can be seen as the slowest, least reliable means of conveying information today, is bound by its own limits. At the same time, its responsibility towards a particular truth is limitless. Painting is always evidence, but evidence which remains unverifiable. Although the invention of the camera may have made painting obsolete, it may also be the best thing that ever happened to painting: painting became free to align or misalign itself with the recognizable facts of everyday life. The challenge today is not to paint the world as it looks, but as it feels; a challenge which may one day yield an entirely new realism.
Although Les Rogers sometimes paints from or incorporates a photographic source, his work is undeniably painted. Oil on canvas. Many images come entirely out of his own imagination, but often he also relies on visual quotation. For a portrait of a woman, Everything is Broken (2004), he looked back to Ingres, Picasso, and de Kooning. Picasso’s Sculpture of a Mandolin and Clarinet (l914) served as a jumping-off point. Rogers saw in the curves of the mandolin those of the female body. References can be indirect, and rather than re-creating an image in its entirety, Rogers will interweave forms, details, and color from the work of other painters into his own composition. Vicious Lounge (2004), is a portrait of Iggy Pop that echoes the raw sexuality of the singer by “splicing” in a section of a well-known Baselitz painting Die Grosse Nacht im Eimer (1962-63). One of the artist’s early “hero” paintings, and now considered one of his most important, it was scandalous when first exhibited. The painting features man holding a large penis from his opened pants — recalling the more outrageous stage appearances of Iggy Pop. Baselitz would, by the late ’60s, go on to paint his paintings upside down. In Vicious Lounge, Rogers has inserted the Baselitz quotation sideways.
For Quarry (2004), Rogers began with some free, gestural painting. After a while, when he stepped back from the canvas, there was what appeared to him to be a large rock formation. Reminded of a particular painting, he went directly to a van Gogh book and came upon Entrance to a Quarry (1889). The similarities between the rock formation in the van Gogh painting and in his own — “the weight of it felt the same” — sent him back to painting, book in hand, and he went on to incorporate forms and color from the van Gogh. Here, the “not necessarily in that order” approach is clear. Rather than working from an outside source, Rogers discovers the source in the act of painting itself.
Rogers moves quickly when he paints, getting as much down as he can in a single session. His intuitive, spontaneous approach is followed by a slower, deliberate activity — adding, subtracting, canceling out. (He has said that he can work for two months on a painting but there may be as little as five hours of actual painting time involved.) In the studio, looking at The Desperate Man (2004), based on an unfinished Courbet self-portrait of 1843-44, Rogers remarks, “In the beginning everything is moving and chaotic, then I tame it, weigh it down. It’s anchored but still moving.” The line not only describes this work perfectly, but many of the ones which come purely out of painting, and out of his own imagination. Ravages (2004) and Fault (2002/2004), a painting that he finished, then took back two years later to re-work, seem to have been produced with opposite approaches. Ravages appears to have been painted in a single sitting, a landscape as a spontaneous combustion of energy and paint. Fault, is a perfectly composed abstraction, in both form and color, that recalls late ’70s Guston (in other words, Guston at the peak of his painterly powers). And yet both works were made with the same approach that Rogers takes from one painting to the next. As we speak about the paintings in the studio, and his need to constantly revise, to go back and throw them “off balance,” the inevitable question is raised: When is a painting finished? Without the least hesitation, Rogers replies, “At a certain point, I know that if I paint on it anymore, I’m going to kill it.” When is a painting finished? One could just as easily ask, when is an essay?
The statement Rogers recalls is most likely one made by Guston in Philadelphia in 1960. Appearing on a panel moderated by Harold Rosenberg, alongside Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhart, and Jack Tworkov, Guston was asked to add a commandment of his own to Reinhart’s “Thirteen Rules of Ethical Conduct For Professional Fine Artists” — each of which begins with: “It is not right for artists to ...” Guston’s response was, “The artist should not want to be right.” [Philip Pavia and Irving Sandler, eds., The Philadelphia Panel, It Is, 5, Spring 1960.] While Rogers’ rephrasing of this remark — “It’s not the artist’s job to get things right” — situates it within an attitude more closely related to our time, it remains consistent with Guston’s position. On that panel in 1960 he went on to say: “… there is a strange assumption behind panel discussions of art … that art should be made clear. For whom?”