Unless faced with a loaded image of an eye, a hand or any other recognizable item, viewers at an art exhibit may be left to wonder in dismay or disbelief about work that is conceptual or a mix of fact and fantasy. Explanations are often demanded of the artist by way of compensation only to discover that artists themselves often search for understanding of their own work. Not everything can be explained, not everything can be easily understood.
Case in point is the current exhibition at The Union for Contemporary Art which presents its own interesting challenges. Artist Thalia Rodgers’ work in You make my heart smile but you also make my eyes cry uses paintings and mixed media to combine the recognizable with the unrecognizable. The viewer is left then to grasp the paradoxes behind the title and hidden in the work itself.
Rodgers walks us down her memory lane. A lane, which is continuous, lengthy and multi-faceted. Re-creating events, spaces, random thoughts, road bumps and artist blocks, she uses the creative process as therapy and allows space for reflection and perception of feelings.
The artist fills in the blanks of her memory with feelings and lets them dictate the next steps. With a mixture of images that are often left unrefined and sketchy, parts of her work are virtually surreal both in style and concept but contribute to a narrative that viewers may choose to follow and make part of their own.
Rodgers, a UNL alumni, began as a graphic design major and switched over to painting. Toward the last semesters of school, she decided to throw out what she gained in training and went in a different direction. Working in a more freeing and “less restrictive manner” as Rodgers puts it, much inspiration was taken from Peter Saul and Philip Guston’s whose later works share an affinity for depicting the figure in a cartoonish, comic style.
“Road Trip 1” is an example of the change in style that came. In it a caricature, perhaps the artist herself, sits unhappily hunched over a table clutching a $20. Apparently, this image “recalls” a road trip than did not go well. Here also, school training along with her biggest stylistic influences show through in the painting. The figurative work feels over-weighted, yet stable with clear focal points that guide the eye through the painting. With just enough clues entering and leaving the edge of the canvas to expand the narrative possibilities within her memory.
A motif of Rodgers is the use of notebook paper as a background and/or frame to her canvas. Some white and some a vintage brown. Rodgers explains that she uses the notebook paper because it reminds her of doodling on homework. This gives her a feeling of freedom to paint whatever she feels and wants in the moment.
“It’s a good starting point to just even paint the canvas as the notebook paper”, she explains. The lined paper is from a notebook found while in school with pages having an old and weathered color. In the works containing a notebook paper background, the canvas is cut at the edges, alluding to them being ripped out.
Jagged edges, another motif in Rodgers work, make frames and ambiguous figures with paint, ink, and collage appear in “You Thinkin what I’m thinkin?”. Rodgers signs her work the way she would write her name on a class assignment. The composition contains torn pieces of paper from other drawings. The collage shapes into a sharp and curved cornered explosion, a testing of her motif in collage form, which creates an interesting texture.
Yet another motif in Rodgers’ work is present here. The grinning figure, painted in an array of reds, yellow and some green. Teeth are exposed, revealing that two of them are made of gold. The figure holds out, in a light blue color, what seems to be a hand, suggesting a blushing expression. The “grin” however, isn’t always bashful and tends to give different emotional expressions depending on where and how it is depicted.
Rodgers uses near and distant memories, many from her childhood, many from trips into nature with her family. Another compositionally challenging work is “Curious Tree”, a watercolor on paper. Depicted in a paradoxically sharp-edged, yet organic style, the sun is painted within warm colors of the sky as it sets behind a mountain of melting green. A notebook-paper-road, roadkill, a tunnel and a slowly creeping night sky keep the eye in a loop and while revisiting missed details. Transparent figures seem to be memories, and layers are scratched away on a bland neutral background.
Because human memory is very inaccurate, her paintings are often constructed by her imagination to block in areas. In blank memory moments, she draws, literally and figuratively, on what she is feeling at the moment to fill in the holes. Sometimes a reaction is created by images or words that were freshly put on canvas, to sort of, refresh her memory.
“Let it Out”, an installation, perhaps provides a clearer picture if seen as the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It uses drawings, and paintings that have been accumulated, each a piece in the overall puzzle. Random and not so random words, people, animals, nature, rooms, phrases or lyrics that once popped into her mind are repeated for emphasis.
The installation is placed in a corner, taking up two walls and the floor. Although centered at the corner, it expands in all directions, the way memories often overwhelm reality. The floor of the installation consists of multiple printed drawings placed under a dog shaped candle holder. In the spine of the dog rests a candle, melted over its boundary and spilling onto the drawings.
Make what you will of this installation, but like the exhibit itself, take your clues from the title itself. Sometimes an artwork, like memories themselves are best comprehended by the sum total of their feelings however complex or contradictory.
Or there are simply too many thoughts occurring that a clear picture is difficult to realize. Take the advice of the installation itself when confronting complexity and paradox and just “Let it Out.” It’s as if her exhibit asks, “You may not completely understand, but do you feel me?”
You make my heart smile but you also make my eyes cry runs through March 14, 2020, at The Union For Contemporary Art located at 2423 North 24th Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday to Friday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call (402) 933-3161 or visit www.u-ca.org.