A CONVERSATION WITH BROOKE ROGERS

Elizabeth Kauffman is Galleries Director at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD. She spoke to Brooke Rogers on the occasion of his exhibition, "Line Time", on view at the university's Downtown Campus gallery in May 2016

Elizabeth Kauffman: Your work has some obvious superficial references to minimalism, formalism, and geometric abstraction. Yet there appear to be other references and allusions at play here. Could you start by talking about what you were thinking about when making these paintings?

Brooke Rogers: I started by writing about formal things, though I definitely don't think of myself as a formalist, at least not in any kind of pure sense. I have read a lot in the last few years, and just before starting work on these, by an art critic from the 1960s and 70s named Amy Golden. She was a champion of the pattern and decoration painters and wrote a lot about Op Art. She wrote about something that she called “optical space” which is the idea—coming after the extreme flatness of the Clement Greenberg era—of a way of reintroducing illusionism into painting but without going completely back to the renaissance window and completing ignoring the picture plane. So Golden’s “optical space” is more about creating a sense of space that is from the picture plane forward, that space just a little bit in front of the picture plane. So there is illusionism there, but at the same time there's an acknowledgement of the surface. This really struck a cord with me.

I've always been interested in pattern and repetition and the idea of rhythm. I’ve also been thinking with these works about the difference–or lack of–between stillness and motion, between a frozen instant and the passage of time; stopping time yet acknowledging the passage of time all at once.  

EK: This idea of freezing time, or of visualizing the passage of time seems quite evident in (SGM) Upon the Face of the Waters.

BR: Yes it reads like a little filmstrip. It’s 24 panels, the same as the “24 fps” frame rate for motion pictures. It reads as this thing—I think of it as a stylized lighting bolt—shooting across the frame on top of what can be read as deep space or the surface of water. If this piece were a movie it would be literally one second, an instant. And yet it’s stretched out, extended. This kind of gets at something Frank Stella and the minimalists called “visual immediacy”, the idea that their works could be comprehended all at once, in an instant. And I’ve always been interested in reductive imagery, in Minimalism in a way; although even Stella realized that this was a dead end. So while I’m interested in that, I’m also interested in extending it, and finding within that instant a greater richness. So, I guess I’m trying to combine any number of different opposites—like stillness and motion—together. I’m suggesting a kind of passage through that moment of immediacy; the moment dissected, stretched out, unpacked, divided up, sustained; E.M. Forster’s “Eternal Moment”, maybe.

EK: Are similar ideas at play in your other, multi-frame work, On 'The Wake of the Ferry II', by Sloan?

BR: This is the first time I’ve ever made a painting that is a direct response to an existing work. There is a painting in the Phillips Collection by John Sloan, which you would probably recognize, called The Wake of the Ferry II. It’s a beautiful little painting mostly in grey tones looking out the back of the Staten Island Ferry as it crosses the river. It’s a foggy, windy day and there is smoke in the air. You see a bit of the roof and the deck of the Ferry, as well as a couple of columns, and everything’s rocking so against the hazy horizon that the boat’s structure appears a bit off-kilter. You don’t really see the horizon, it’s lost in a haze of fog and rain and smoke from the other boats that are out there. It’s just a beautiful, powerful little painting that is so evocative of the mood of a rainy day. Much has been written about that piece and other paintings by the Ashcan School painters in terms of what are called “liminal spaces”, those in-between spaces; a Ferry is a prototypical liminal space, or a sidewalk…you don’t really stay there, it’s in between two destinations.

The idea of the liminal is all wrapped up in where I see us in the world—always existing on a sliding scale between heaven and earth, between the worldly concerns of everyday life and other, higher concerns. There is a whole series of works, some of which will be included in my show at the Art Academy in Easton, called In The Offing. The “offing” is a nautical term that refers to that place out on the ocean horizon that you can see from the shore. If you said, “My father’s ship is in the offing,” it would be clear that it is coming in, but it’s not yet here. It’s within sight of shore, but it is really still out to sea, it’s caught in that kind of in-between place. And as we see it from shore, it’s right on the horizon between the sea and the sky, on the seam between heaven and earth.

Beyond liminal space I was also thinking of optical space. In the painting there’s this sort of minimalist horizon, or misty atmosphere, behind this grillwork that’s right at the surface, maybe just a little in front of the picture. I was also just trying to see if I could make a painting with almost no color that was dynamic and rich.

EK: It seems like you are interested in paradox, impossible situations like creating movement within stillness, being both near and far at the same time. Does this idea of contrast or contradiction guide your formal choices?

BR: It does. You know we all in life, and art, thrive on contrast. I don’t think of it as paradox however, though I know what you mean. I’m not sure what the better word for me would be. I just think of it as richness, or trying to bring in a range of experience both sort of squishy around the edges in some cases and very emphatic in others. I guess they are contradictory. I do tend to think in couplets. It’s a poetic device that I’m just drawn to and I don’t know why. It has to do with the idea, which comes from the bible and my faith, of being in the world but not of it. Which is impossible. It’s a very fine line to walk.

EK: What about the word pieces, Free Surf and Selfie, how do these relate to the other works in the show?

BR: These are sort of modular and I’ve always been interested in that, and that comes from late 20th century abstract painting. But it also comes from other influences, other examples that amount to piecing things together in a repetitive way, like quilting which has been a big influence in my work over the years; also Islamic tiles and patterning, and Renaissance marquetry. So I see them as very similar in the respect that there is a repetition of forms to create something like a pattern.

You know the word thing—though it’s such a cliché to say that my work is somewhere between abstraction and realism—is a play between image and form. I start out for some reason with an interest in non-objective form. I just like the ideal world of formlessness, form-origins, and these pure wonderful mathematical relationships, but I’m not an artist who can really just exist there. I always want to bring the world in. Sometimes it turns into almost pictures and other times I am working with language as an image.

I do think there is a meaningful relationship, as George Steiner has said, between word and world. There was historically a robust connection between them. Post-modernism has unmoored language from the real world in a lot of ways, and I am trying to find my way to reconnect, to ground it again. I’ve done it with something that I, and lots of painters, have always done: first, playing up the surface, and second, really diving into figure/ground relationships. In typographic design it’s called the form/counter-form relationship, or forms and counters.

I grew up at the beach, I still live there, and I was and still kind of am a surfer, so I just wanted something fun and interesting to bring into these paintings. A lot of the language I’ve brought in comes from surfer slang. "Free surfing", for instance, is this thing that has come about in the last 20 years. There is the professional surfing circuit where you can make a living by winning contests and getting sponsorships, but if you are good enough and not into that competition thing you can actually be a free surfer and be paid just to get yourself photographed or filmed surfing great waves around the world. It also relates to Free Jazz, which is an open-ended tributary of jazz music, and I’m really into jazz; like quilting, it’s an emphatically American art form.

EK: The remainder of paintings in your exhibition seem to be another variant of some of these main themes you’ve already discussed, yet they are definitely unique in the way they ride the line between recognizable form and abstraction.  

BR: Thunderstorm (Ascension) reads like a complex over-lapping geometric configuration, but I really started out with a horizon, an approximation of sunshine, and a line of storm clouds rolling in from the left. It’s not really important to me that someone sees that in order to really get the painting. The others are a little more obvious. Dawn Patrol is pretty clearly a sunrise. This is another nod to surfer slang, “dawn patrol” is when you’re man enough to get out of bed early to go surfing, not an easy thing for some. The winds are often most favorable early in the morning or late in the evening. Dawn is a good time to surf. The Green Room reads as a breaking wave. The big right triangle and slightly smaller triangle, and slightly smaller…all the way around comes straight from Robert Smithson. It’s kind of an abstracted Spiral Jetty. Smithson also did several sculptures–there’s one in the Hirshhorn–that are simply slowly descending triangles that wrap around. So the triangles on the right side of the painting are the wave breaking, and the yellow triangle on the left then is an ultra simplified version of linear perspective, the shore descending off into the distance. 

So I’m doing a little bit of–some say experimenting–I just call it playing with form; trying things, seeing how geometric forms can stand in for things we see in the real world. And there was a fair bit of this in The Green Room—there was a whole other painting underneath. It was first a word painting, then many layers on top, and then taking some away finally ended up with something beautiful, the crazy pattern that shows through. And this too [the top part of Dawn Patrol] was completely unforeseen. I just have to take credit for being smart enough, when it happened, to paint around it and leave it there.

EK: It’s interesting that this imagery, even though it’s very subtle and not straight forward, is still very Eastern Shore.

BR: I was really trying for that. You know the saying: all politics are local. Robert Hughes in his autobiography was talking about when he was first a journalist in northern Italy, that there were a lot of Etruscan artifacts that would be dredged up by farmers tilling their fields. He talks about how all art is local, that really, at least in some respects, every great work comes out of simple, direct associations that are in the artist’s life. So I really wanted to try and make some work that was “Eastern Shore”... not the typical beach scenes exactly, but my experience of living here.