In early September, Lincoln-based Craig Roper opened his current solo exhibition I Live in My Own World Now and I’m Happy Here at Iron Tail Gallery. The imperfect snapshot-style photographs presented here were taken by me at the opening. These images provide a casual and honest look into the feel of the opening party revealing some unexpected immersive juxtapositions that happened as I viewed the sculptures with my son who, because of where he was standing, became an integrated human element within some of the works.
In August, Roper promoted the exhibition with a silly picture of himself sitting inside a metal cattle stock tack in his backyard that he was using as a summertime pool. He sent the photograph and the exhibition announcement to his followers via email. The promotional photograph force a dual question: why is Roper so happy, and is this another of his jokes? Readers of his work don’t often ‘get’ the comic relief of his style.
The September exhibition opening, during Lincoln’s hectic First Friday’s, ended up being an extremely successful gathering of friends, admirers, and possible jealous enemies curious to know why people liked Roper so much. To attract the group, he did something that most artists don’t have the financial luxury to do: he gave away all of the art for free. Roper was honest in saying he didn’t necessarily ‘need the money’ and while there is probably some truth to that, the act of verbalizing an anti-money attitude may be another of his style points. By giving away the art he frees himself of the responsibility of the work being precious and pure.
So what did people think of his opening? Some implied that the giveaway was a trick and marketing gimmick - a way to encourage the notice of critics which certainly worked skillfully because it got my attention as well as that of Robert J. Mahoney. Others viewed his behavior as a generous gift to the community as well as an act of gracious thank you. What did I think? I interpret Roper’s ‘free art’ giveaway as his greatest performance art piece to date. He gave away pieces of himself the way the land gives away pieces of herself. As a result of the attention, Iron Tail extended the exhibition another month and Roper worked with a theater company to include theatrical readings within the space.
To understand the more serious elements of Roper’s engagement with landscape art, which continues to be a dominant force in the evolving history of Nebraska art, we must keep this quote by historian Simon Schama in mind “Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.”
Another way to look at Roper is to examine the work against the ideas established during the Romantic period, the era in which painters produced vistas with foggy mystical attributes. Still another point of consideration is existentialism. I’ve often read Roper as detached and interior in his perspectives. This is not surprising because when you stand out in the middle of the prairie flatlands the deep feeling of being alone with yourself in overwhelming. For Roper, creating or capturing a weary atmosphere is fundamental as is the push to focus the eye on odd and sometimes taciturn combinations. There is a high-level interest in history, nostalgia, and layers - thoughts within thoughts.
Without a doubt, Roper rests within the, more recent and still active, Neo-Realistic mode in which images are pulled from everyday life using photography to capture situations with strange and poetic minimal beauty, and the tone of wander and nomadic searching.
Although I dislike comparing one artist to another, with Roper it’s important to look at him in context with Omaha-born Edward Ruscha, who like Roper will incorporate text - words, phrases, and pop culture references into his expansive landscapes. The pieces that I like best by Roper are those that read ‘go west’ against a wide open horizon.
When approaching I Live in My Own World and I'm Happy Here at Iron Tail notice and then synthesize the four interconnected components:
1. a stack of landscape photographs which is an unbundled selection, a freer version of of Roper's ‘photographic bundles.’
2. a group of ‘infinite landscape’ wall-hung assemblage platforms/stages featuring mirrored surfaces and a variety of photographs of pure land, sky, mundane objects, and some people, along with a variety of materials and objects.
3. a series of minimal ‘truck paintings’ presented within thin, childish, bright colored frames, some with gunshot holes in them - this group includes the ‘Go West’ text painting.
4. a ‘tower’ composed of what looks like stacked discarded salvage wood that could be some of Roper’s old primitive paintings and looks vaguely like the tip of Nebraska’s Chimney Rock.
Together these components function as a type of environment or landscape space, and can be read as a possible metaphorical portrait of human intervention within and disruption of the land. It could also be read as a theatrical setting. The installation moves forward Roper’s ongoing exploration of how to make visible the undefined feeling of living on the prairie lands, and how to interpret his own personal memory and connection to place, or more simply stated: how to conjure ghosts.
Photographer-writer Wright Morris did the same thing with his photographs and writings. Schama, in his book “Landscape and Memory” details how geography - forest, prairie, seashore - is filled with the energy-memory/ history of past life and death. This energy gives the place a tonality that is infinitely present and always interacting with living people as they pass through. In the Native American belief system, there’s the sacred reality of ‘ceremonial time’ in which time collapses and everything exists simultaneously.
Roper is attempting to convey a sense integration to evoke the feeling of ‘otherworldliness.’ I think he does this because he’s living with mild existential angst. By using mirrors in the ‘infinite landscape’ pieces he is forcing the viewer into the uncomfortable place of the never-ending possibility where the horizon is far away and seems impossible to reach. It’s the idea of ‘going west into the sunset.’ In this way, we experience what I call a ‘through the looking glass’ moment - forced and pulled into Roper’s world. The mirrors also open up the realization of personal ego; we see and admire our interjection into another person’s narrative. Mirrors are also symbols of the ‘seekers truth or thoughts’ and when we enter into Roper’s landscapes we begin to physically see ourselves within the confused expanse of his mind.
The platforms also function as mini-theatrical settings where individual stories can happen. This, of course, is not a new idea - landscape painting is, after all, a way for people to project themselves into space; we sit in front of a gorgeous vista and imagine ourselves within the environment. There’s still another aspect of the work - the assemblage/gathering of beautiful shinning things with possible shamanistic power - which I think comes from the influence of Roper’s wife, successful jewelry designer, Sydney Lynch.
Another of Roper’s thematic points is the paradox of destruction/construction; in previous installation work, he’d employed the same vocabulary to arrange an installation in which chunks of concrete were placed on top of his old paintings grouped on the floor.
He is also well known for shooting paintings with guns and for embracing a dirty masculine aesthetic. The black ‘truck paintings’ that have been gunshot are particularly menacing. Roper said, “Guns are complicated, unfortunately, they are an integral part of our history and landscape. If I’m going to faithfully dive into our cultural landscape I can’t, and should not, ignore the issue, nor the less attractive parts of The West.”
What Roper is doing is giving us an intelligent way to consider the sad reality gun ownership. He creates the violence to give voice to observations of our human-made cataclysmic dominance over each other and the natural world - something like the Joni Mitchell’s song “they paved paradise and built a parking’ lot...they took all the trees, and put ‘em in a tree museum.” Instead of giving in to deep melancholia over the realization that humans can be cruel and ugly, Roper creates sincere personal pieces as the expulsion of demons. The result is equal parts comic and confounding. Some of the work touches on the notion of the sublime in that awe is achieved.
For a long time Roper was a challenging artist to label because he’s successful at cleverly crisscrossing methodologies and art making practices - he paints, he’s a photographer, he’s an experimental sculptor, and most importantly he’s a conceptual installation artist, possibly a performance artist, and occasionally an exhibition curator.
He thinks and creates in a heady imperfect in-between world of realism and abstraction; his vocabulary is that of metaphors, allegory, nuance, and an adult playfulness. His esthetic is modern-prairie - a fusion of sophisticated urban and rural qualities.
Just prior to the writing of this review, he told me, via a casual Facebook chat, that some people wanted the black minimal ‘truck paintings’ shot and others did not. By shot, he meant with a gun. I didn’t ask him why some people didn’t want a painting that was ‘gunshot’ because it’s obvious that the aftermath and suggestion of violence is upsetting. Personally, I want one with bullet holes because shooting the paintings in a rural setting is part of Roper’s creative process; the act of destroying the painted surface, to create texture, by blasting it with a gun is one of his defining specific characteristics and is part of his ongoing conjuring an exorcism of personal monsters.
Thinking of Roper’s process, the gamble he takes with each work, brings to mind an interesting surreal union: the contemplative man in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, singing Johnny Cash - “You can run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Sooner or later God’ll cut you down, Sooner or later God’ll cut you down.”