The Art of Desire in Terry Rodgers Paintings

Provoke! (NSFW)

March 15, 2018

In his monumental figurative oil paintings, Terry Rodgers depicts his own vision of our times. For the last thirty years, the artist has been creating lushly painted scenes of lavish parties populated by privileged youth.

In his distinct hyper-realistic style and vividly baroque use of color, Rodgers creates carefully composed fictions where beauty is as inviting as it is repugnant.

Despite the initial allure of this luxurious fictional world, Rodgers aims to underline the complexity of human relations in contemporary society. "My interest is in isolation and uncertainty in today’s world. A failure of communication. So the questions are: What do we want and what is influencing us? And how do these influences affect what we want?", the artist explains in a recent interview with Widewalls.

Without the ability to truly connect with one another, his subjects exude boredom, loneliness and a yearning for human contact. This world of sex, beauty and wealth cannot conceal the emptiness of their lives, highlighting the tension between desire and loneliness.

The Deposition, 2010; born in 1947 , the artist has published several books
Terry Rodgers - The Deposition, 2010

Terry Rodgers and the Contemporary Society in All Its Complexity

While the times we live in offer endless opportunities, it is at the same time very difficult for most of us to navigate their uncharted waters. The contemporary society is composed of dichotomies – a great push and pull, the lure and the repulsion, the fiction and the real, the known and the unknown. It is this remarkable complexity that Terry Rodgers is trying to capture in his works.

The focus of the artist leans towards a critique of an over-mediate society. As he explains, our notions of fulfillment are derived from various interpretations that are not all our own, or might be false, or simply not within our reach. In his canvases, Rodgers has created an imaginary world of fine bodies, jewels, couches, beautiful interiors, and wealth – a world that plays with this super-mediated experience and our ever-present fantasies.

In these landscapes that portray contemporary body politics, nudity features prominently. They [paintings] are confections of the media, our social and physical desires, our bodies and our sense of vulnerability. And nudity plays into that. We are more exposed. The body is where we live and where our desires get most confounded,” he explains.

"First and foremost," he continues, "biology seems to be a driving force for a great deal of what takes place in this world. We have hormonal drives and displaced hormonal drives. And then we have the inescapable torrent of media-driven ideals, beauty, sex, wealth, style. But perhaps more important is our longing for a satisfying personal connection."

The Transparency of Venus, 2011; born in 1947, the american artist has published several books and exhibited in a museum
Terry Rodgers - The Transparency of Venus, 2011

Desire That Drives Us

What drives the majority of our actions is a desire in all forms – sexual, emotional, spiritual, a desire for personal connection.  In Rodgers' canvases, this bait of excitement and desire is juxtaposed against the depiction of boredom that seems so present in our times. These various modes of language and perception of every era or culture are the inevitable roots of illusion and often disenchantment. In his works, the artist portrays this contemporary search for a meaningful life as a perpetual existential hangover.

As every generation invents its own fantasy culture, we tend to pursue the phantoms we have invented to the point of not being able to distinguish between meaning-making and myth-making. As Rodgers explains, this lure of cultural ideal has been a driving force for many millennia. The power, glory, recognition, sex, and money have played their parts in different cultures through history.

The drive to connect, the drive to relate, the drive for sex, the drive to appear wonderful, to be accepted, these are all confused with each other and seemingly in our DNA. And so has it changed? Not really.

The Darkness of Illumination, 2013; his works will be on view in 2018 in a museum
Terry Rodgers - The Darkness of Illumination, 2013

A Yearning for Human Contact

Even though the rich and spoiled feature prominently in his compositions, the work is not about them. As he states, it is “rather about the ever-present difficulty of communication in a contemporary world of mediated thought.” “I assume”, he adds, “that isolation has been an issue forever”. As he highlights, this isolation is an integral part of our experience.

Indeed, these canvases both collapse and emphasize psychic distance and physical proximity. Each of his subjects is isolated in their own world without an ability to really connect with another human being, highlighting the vulnerability and delicacy of our inner and private selves. This seemingly seductive and marvelous glamour is contrasted with a real sense of isolation, loneliness and uncertainty - all made of ideals and fictions that inhabit our minds. As he notices, "living may simply be, for all societies, a huge marvelous web of the real and the imagined."

Defining Grace, 2014; on view in the upcoming exhibition
Terry Rodgers - Defining Grace, 2014

A Distinct Artistic Signature Across Various Media

In addition to oil paintings, Terry Rodgers works across various media, including photography, videos and drawings. Yet, all of his work displays his distinct artistic signature, allowing him to include different aspects of our mental phantasmagoria.

"In the lightboxes, we can see so many bits of our glittery culture, so many styles of rendition that we experience. In the video, we have a bit of “real-time” experience, watching individuals noticing what they are going through," he explains. In a pseudo-real proximity, these video works compel the viewer to feel both their own isolation and their own uncertainty.

Dissecting and re-integrating various familiar modes of presentation, his photo-constructions can be seen as an elaboration of certain aspects of his canvases. "The photography is a more intense focus on the isolation of the individuals. And the painting somehow brings a great deal of this together, the complexity and the isolation… the push-pull of our experience". 

The imaginary life of leisure and pleasure Rodgers portrays stands as an iconic vision of the tensions and confusions endemic to today's society. These lavish parties he depicts, Rodgers describes as confections of fantasy, reality and media. And this complexity of our contemporary existence will remain the artist's main point of interest.

I will always be interested in examining our isolation, our confusion and the influence of our cultural milieu.

Approximations_screen shot from video, 2013
Terry Rodgers - Approximations_screen shot from video, 2013

Trent, photograph, 2013, Willow, photograph, 2013
Left: Terry Rodgers - Trent, photograph, 2013 / Right: Terry Rodgers - Willow, photograph, 2013

Leda and the Swan, 2011, Approximations, screen shot from video, 2013
Left: Terry Rodgers - Leda and the Swan, 2011 / Right: Terry Rodgers - Approximations, screenshot from video, 2013

 Editors’ Tip: Dimensions of Ambiguity by Terry Rodgers

For more than 20 years, American artist Terry Rodgers has portrayed the rituals of consumerism in his pieces, in which everything, bodies as well as goods, are charged with sexual appeal. This bound edition with a title borrowed from a painting produced in 2008 carries his practice forward by continuing to raise a variety of material and ethical questions through a solid survey of his work. With little text, a total of some forty paintings are presented here in full-color, including new pieces produced both over the last year and earlier works dating back to the mid-1980s. All paintings are clearly presented and accompanied by details that highlight specific aspects of a particular painting.

Featured image: Terry Rodgers - Threshold of Influence, 2013. All images courtesy of the artist.

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