John Armstrong

Brent Roe
Roe Reversal

Those who have attended one of Toronto artist Brent Roe's infrequent artist talks may recall the artist's combination of deadpan, self-effacing quips, the drawn-out, puzzling-through of his visual ideation, and the near absence of adjectives in any of his verbal descriptions. When outlining his artistic development in a 1998 lecture at Sheridan College, the concision and straight forwardness of Roe's accounts of the images in his Cold War paintings of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s fairly evaporated when it came to describing his more recent language-annotated work – the paintings that comprise this exhibition.

Most artists understandably have less purchase on their latest efforts than on well turned-over past work. Roe’s Cold War paintings parody the black-and-white divisions separating the Communist and Free Worlds, along with the then terrifying and very real threat of nuclear engagement. THE PERFORMING MEN (1982), for example, depicts American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on a vaudeville-style stage cordially shaking hands. Thought balloons hovering above each of the key Cold War protagonists, however, indicate each man’s wildly divergent, if not fatuous, thoughts. In THIS PLANET, MY BRAIN (1982), rain clouds and nuclear mushroom clouds cycle around a representation of the planet earth that contains a radiating human brain — graphically presenting nuclear proliferation as an all-too-human creation for which we all must assume responsibility. There is a shared purpose in these paintings’ textual elements (the titles appear on the paintings) and images. Roe had a simple and urgent message to convey: this came across both in the paintings and during the lecture. His thoughts on the more recent text-and-image paintings, however, were searching and guarded. This may have to do with the fact that the text in the later paintings does not play the role of a caption explaining an illustration: the words and the images now contribute to the paintings' content as equal partners. Indeed, the roles of the words and images are often interchangeable: Roe’s playful elaboration of the letterforms is both image and text. In listening to Roe, one gathers that he is wary of allowing language much rope: language must be constrained so as not to play the role of any final guarantor of meaning.

On entering the exhibition, we encounter two works that posit as clear a statement of Roe’s artistic credo and working methodology as one is likely to get: bacon of hope (1994) and HIDDEN MEANING (1993). In a mock transcendental cool that gently parodies Abstract Expressionism, these works isolate a central image in a flat or patterned ground. (The American artist Adolph Gottlieb comes to mind.) Roe’s floating motifs, unlike those of his resolutely imagistic Ab-Ex precedents, are composed of visual or written clichés that wittily serve up familiarity as a haunting prospect.

bacon of hope is organized as an insignia, its title woven into the suspended strip of bacon as a motto in a religious or school crest: it might say "Success through Endeavour," or "Beacon of Hope" but instead we have "Bacon of Hope." Connected to the bacon strip are a foursome of further vital concerns, spelled out in cursive script and offering a pared down vision of what might be life's motivational forces: sex, chips, fertilizer, jazz. These vital concerns hover around the bacon, lending it the authority of Christ in Majesty bracketed by symbols of the four evangelists in an illustrated medieval Bible. Or, one might equally well conclude that Roe has a keen interest in fridge magnet poetry.

HIDDEN MEANING further clarifies Roe's excavation of the shifting and shifty nature of language or indeed of any scripto-visual sign. In the centre of another ground of looping brushstrokes of creamy white oil paint lies the word "meaning," which balloons out in the middle to cover what appears to be a swollen, yellow and lilac-tinged bruise. The word "meaning" is obscured by a white medallion with a frilly border into which is painted the word "hidden." Here Roe graphically points out that latent content (hidden meaning) can lead to an oxymoronic (even abusive) scrape up; he asks us to consider just how obscured an artwork's content can get before it ceases to signify. On the face of it, Roe structures his textual cues to meaning as user-friendly diagrams and fancied-up packages to make language appear as simple causal logic or even a gift; but he goes to great pains to turn his carefully arranged words into circular contradictions that expressly muddy manifest content.

Such assaults on syntactical order betray Roe's delight in either solemnly isolating or capriciously scattering words about the canvas surface. On first reading, Roe's reordering and dissection of language often restates the obvious: a pedantic, tongue-in-cheek acting-out of the word or phrase's meaning — an approach with which the Calligramme-era Guillaume Apollinaire, or indeed many twentieth-century Concrete poets, would feel very much at home. In his painting, HI (1992), Roe reminds us that this word's graphic manifestation is an economical ordering of four straight lines. The word, ‘Hi,’ is contained in a drawn loop depicting a punching bag that is figuratively supported by four straight lines, three of which cut across painting's corners to suggest (given the painting's orange-yellow hue) the diamond shape of a ‘yield’ traffic sign. The straight-ahead cheeriness of this salutation finds a parallel, slightly sinister life as part of the Highway Traffic Act. Roe underscores that communication is not made up of neatly self-contained signs to be interpreted in any single manner; even the simplest hail-fellow-well-met greeting contains a panoply of obligations, and calls on the attendant desires and frustrations of all social relations.

All of the paintings in the exhibition foreground text: each of the several overlapping series of paintings does this in a particular way. The earliest works in the exhibition, from 1992-93, centrally isolate parts of speech (interjections, inflected verbs, noun phrases) in swirls of white oil paint whose grain, like the motifs in damask cloth, is revealed best in raking illumination. HI and HIDDEN MEANING are typical. Other works from this period include the following titles: IS, fate, poor dead people.

In his 1993-94 paintings, Roe continues to use the richly textured white oil ground: in several paintings, the parts of speech have been connected to form sentences: both declarative — the world will not end anytime soon — and imperative — compost your theories. In these last two paintings, Roe draws outline balloons around each word — as one might have done in phonics class — and then stacks them up to read vertically. Surrounding the once again centrally isolated words and reaching into the white ground is a squiggly interlace of wet-into-wet, brightly coloured brushstrokes. The interlace has a laconic abandon echoed in its crayon box palette — red, yellow, blue, green, violet — all unmixed save the tinting that occurs as the applied colour melts into the circling whiteness. Also in this series are paintings in the order of bacon of hope which Roe calls "charts" (as in chart #1, chart #5…). As with bacon…, these paintings contain strings of words in free associative chains connected by lines to suggest maps or textbook diagrams. Where the one-word paintings suggest the childhood wonder of the acquisition of language, the longer painted inscriptions invoke the-all-too-knowing adages of adulthood.

1995 sees the introduction of ambient, cryptic and silly doodles (clouds, splashes, insects…) that allows Roe to abandon the more formal presentations and edge towards his use of overall patterning in the 1996-97 paintings. Also, cautiously, he changes from oils to acrylics, replacing the unctuous materiality of his previous paintings with a clipped restraint. This frugality is enhanced by his placement of pictorial elements in a sea of unprimed raw cotton. In ETERNITY IS AMONGST US (1995), Roe spells out the painting’s title in four banners that run up a twisting cord and appear to blow in a breeze: the banners read as though seen from behind, as in a mirror image. Beside the textual column are cartoon-like images that might be interpreted as an inukshuk in a blonde wig sitting beside a biomorphic red skidoo. decorative sun (1995) is an ironic paean to modernist severity: a de Stijl palette plays out in a vignette involving a yellow sun, a red cube, and the cube's blue cast shadow. Behind the cube sits a winking Casper the Ghost with two bare leggy-pegs sticking out. Emanating from this entourage are assorted curlicues, comic-strip glee lines, and an upside down daisy. Rather than didactic charts, we now have exploded lessons in art history and New Age proverbial expressions — again, Roe's estranged sense of delight in the world-weary.

In 1996 and 1997, the bare canvas ground is first tinted a solid colour, as in please position your poetry within these parameters (1996); in the later paintings, the ground is gessoed, then meandering turns of painted line are applied by brush and scraped back off. This ghosting of a painted gesture on a largely white ground is reminiscent of Willem de Kooning's painted erasures. In addition to the nod towards Abstract Expressionism, the paintings are again conceived in the de Stijl axis of three primaries and black and white. The recuperation of 20-th century painting, with a particular interest in the late 1940s and ‘50s, is now a well-established path to neo-abstract painting: American artist Brice Marden's 1990s homages to Jackson Pollock, with his studied use of extended painting tools to recreate Pollock's calligraphic lines, is emblematic of this approach — understated, even pious. Roe's tributes are no less scholarly, but demonstrate ambivalence towards received ideas. In autodogmatic TRIP (1997) the neologism, "auto-dog-ma-tic," is divided into syllables, as if for rote learning, and presented in constellation-like suspension in a gently recessed Romanesque portal. I AM DREAMING ABOUT TIME (1997) casts the tradition of “overall” (Jackson Pollock-styled) painting as the web of a thieving spider that clutches a bag of stolen "Time." And in a final gesture of complete uncertainty Twin Heads of YES and NO (1997) display two disembodied grinning faces upon which is perched an equally ecstatic, jiggling dancer. Roe sets recognizable motifs of modern painting into funhouse dramas, the artist stargazes to find the "canon," gets caught in a web, or is the prancing yes-man, acting out some predetermined script.

From 1998 on, Roe continues to plumb the nature and scope of a contemporary art’s enquiry. These paintings ironically critique both the motivations of the artist as the producer of artwork as well as the range of signification to which an artwork may justifiably lay claim. In EGO/for/SALE (1998) the title of the painting is scrawled on a lawn sign, which sits in a hesitant mesh of Roe’s characteristic doodles and meandering lines. THIS/SPACE/RESERVED/FOR/EARNEST/EXPRESSION (1999) is written on a cloud upon which jauntily hangs a be-feathered alpine hat. Again the text sits amid a (this time more assured) swirl of meandering loops. A particularly congested mat of meanders holds the title for truth/and/meaning/can/be/found/within/5 metres/of/this/spot (1999). Each word in the title is stacked one on top of another, and the column of words balances on a black spot — the point from which, the artist suggests, we might best measure the proximity of “truth and meaning.” In Roe’s mordant reckoning, an artist produces self-aggrandizing, earnest artwork that all too often unrealistically attempts to locate unknowable universals. He points out that the artist is anything but a disinterested voice, his or her creative endeavour too often a gloss rather than an investigation of any depth. 

If all this seems a bit bleak, we might look at Roe's manner of working for a possible reprieve. In his later paintings, Roe begins a picture by establishing a ground of meandering loops. From mid-2000 he returns to oils; the meanders are painted in his characteristically vibrant palette into a wet ground of white in a celebratory manner that greatly emphasizes oils’ materiality. His use of a wet-into-wet technique, while offering tonal subtly as the colours variously mix with the white ground, is a one-shot, bravura process. Roe’s deft calligraphy intermixed with his hallmark cartoon doodles serves to fill the space, and to act as a decorative foil to the more directed message of the text. The calligraphy is by turns elegant and awkward ‑ it sweeps effortlessly over the canvas surface or runs in seemingly uncontainable drips. Roe tempers his deftness as he appears unable to control, or even to take too seriously, his obvious debt to abstractionism. Such a studiously clumsy presentation, a stock comedic ploy, places the wit and sarcasm of his textual messages in bold parentheses. Before all else, we are directed to think through Roe’s painterly aplomb and faux hesitations.

Roe matches his facility with paint application in his use of an equally wide-ranging vocabulary of graphic or drawn letterforms. He playfully contorts the formal vocabulary of printed (rather than written or cursive) letters. Roe renders his printed-out characters three-dimensionally, in condensed form, or even reversed, as in a printer’s type block. This prankish use of letterforms underlines the antics of his poetic messages. Roe carefully outlines lower case letters and then cheerily colours them in for the free-associative list used in the eponymous rocks and pines/several pleasing shades of blue/the price of gold/questions and answers/the old barn fell down/kiss my powdered ass/see you tomorrow (1999 - 2000). Each poetic stanza is contained in its own scrolled banner or cloud; the stanzas float in a ground of fleshy pink and brown meanders. Roe even takes the idea of a hand-lettered sign as a point of departure: for/today’s/seminar “WHAT TO THINK/WHAT TO FEEL”/meet/here/at 6 a.m. (1999) suggests a showcard sign one might encounter in a convention centre setting at a self help conference. The very early morning meeting time and the accompanying frenetic maze of meanders imparts an air of futility to the prospect of such a seminar, and ultimately to the idea that art should presume any sort of didactic role.

In Roe’s most recent paintings, such as ESSENCE of ESSENCE (2001) and TRANCE (2001), the text has expanded to fill all of the canvas. They are both typographically mannered: the first word in the phrase ESSENCE of ESSENCE is painted as a mirror image, and in TRANCE, the title is dramatically attenuated as well as reversed. In both paintings, the background meanders and doodles are toned down, and we are left with the paintings’ trumpeted ambitions writ large. Both titles make mocking reference to aspirations that high modernist painting held: painting that was seen as authentic and transcendent expression, as being potentially transformative for the viewer, even having a prophetic, vision-inducing quality. Roe is puckishly uncomfortable with these large claims, and never tires of exposing the implicit contract between the artist and viewer.

Roe offers seemingly straightforward directions for the interpretation of his paintings to the viewer, directions that on closer inspection are mired in contradiction. Vexed diagrams, exhortations, and adages mix with references to art history trimmed with doodles — all cast in a manner of delivery that appears as either accomplished or the product of a happy accident. Roe is not shirking his responsibility as an artist and communicator, but is purposefully working through it. He mistrusts his media of expression — painting and language — and he has these two protagonists act out a carefully choreographed dance of confrontation and rebuttal.

Over the period covered by this exhibition, Roe’s use of language in his paintings moves from a more subordinate role to one of apparent dominance over his invented visual passages. Language is never depicted in isolation; language is equally an image, invariably found in a sea of myriad quixotic ciphers: skulls, googly eyes, doilies, paddling heads on logs, paisleys, snowflakes…, a compendium of rhyme that gradually coalesces into a logic more poetic than prescriptive. Roe proposes insolvable dilemmas and questions, but also playful conundrums in paint that revel in the pleasure of their manufacture, in their beguiling internal logic. He is mindful of the circumscribed reach of artistic gesture and of the foibles of the construction of a unique artistic voice. There is disquiet underlying the blithe frivolity of the cast of carnival players Roe has (in part) drawn from 20-th century painting. With this, Roe sounds out doubt and uncertainty to establish an impromptu chorus of measured hope against the tyranny of known responses.

Catalogue essay by curator John Armstrong published by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on the occasion of the exhibition Who Means What/Brent Roe/Paintings/1992-2001, 2002.