Angelic and anguished visions alternate in a new exhibition
Jonathan Rogers: GROUP SELF PORTRAIT #2
It might come as a surprise to many, but animator and theme park pioneer Walt Disney and eccentric surrealist artist Salvador Dali were longtime friends. The idealistic dreamer and architect of childhood fantasies, and the flamboyant painter of haunting hallucinations had more in common than iconic mustaches.
In 1946, the two began work on a collaborative animated project called Destino. It was shelved due to funding constraints, but fifty-eight years later, Disney’s nephew, Roy Disney, completed the project, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The animated short is full of hallucinatory Daliesque creepiness and melancholy allusions. In both style and content, it’s a film that would never be made in the commercial world of animation today.
Rogers and Freud
I couldn’t help thinking of Destino as I viewed The Complexity of Life, Jonathan Rogers’ exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC). Rogers began his career as an illustrator, but quickly became a highly successful animator and later animation producer at Disney and Marvel Studios. But his path in life has been anything but smooth, involving—according to Rogers—a cult-like religious upbringing, periods of nomadic wandering, and plenty of what he views as personal “failures.”
Somewhere along the way, he began painting, at least partly to exorcise some serious demons and, after moving to Western New York in the nineties, he began exhibiting his work. Since then, he has popped up infrequently on the local art scene. Former Buffalo News art critic Colin Dabkowski writes in a 2008 article, “Owing to many factors, Rogers’ paintings have not had the kind of rousing success he has hoped for,” which no doubt speaks more to Buffalo’s art market than the artist’s efforts. The BPAC exhibition represents a concise overview of his work.
You can’t look at Rogers’ detail-intensive figurative paintings without feeling that they comprise big chunks of an artist’s wounded psyche posing as phantasmagoric fantasy. Animators express emotion through physical gesture, and Rogers’ chimerical visions are populated by children in hyperkinetic motion, or impossibly contorted, or slumped in abject dejection. His painting technique in a single work can range from brushy naturalism to cartoon flatness, all rendered with an alchemical internal consistency. Viewers may feel compelled to treat the works like surreal thematic apperception tests, projecting emotions and thoughts onto the characters and constructing narratives to describe what happens before, during, and after each scene. And these works do feel like movie scenes, frozen hallucinatory moments, comparable to Dali’s storyboards on which Destino was based.
Master of paradox
Included in the exhibition are works from three series: Visions of Faith, Self Portraits, and Little Dancer. Visions of Faith are earnest, romanticized reflections of profound religious belief. In interviews, Rogers has professed a personal spiritual awakening. Viewers might find works like Deliverance—a painting in which the hand of God releases a winged infant cherub into the majestic heavens—to be overladen with sanguinity. That these sentimentalized visions are rendered with illustrative prowess either contributes to or offsets the saccharine quota, depending on one’s aesthetic perspective.
Yet, just yards away hangs Group Self Portrait #1, a gloomy depiction of the artist as a dispirited child surrounded by a series of sinister alter egos. In the background corner is an idyllic scene of a boy in overalls frolicking with a collie. (A cherished memory of a more innocent time with a dog named Rosebud?) Like many of Rogers’ works, the word “gloomy” reflects the emotional tone, not the visual style. These paintings abound with saturated color, with figures that cavort amid ambiguous space, whimsically skewed perspectives, and whirling abstract shapes.
It’s tempting to view the Self Portraits works as symbolic self-depictions, in which every detail carries profound autobiographical meaning to be decrypted by viewers. But that’s a fool’s errand. Whatever meanings the artist has in mind, they remain largely indecipherable. As with the evocative paintings of Chagall, viewers are limited to nonliteral interpretations informed by emotional response.
from Self Portraits
Rogers’ Little Dancer works evoke childhood fears, anguish, and elation, expressed through ritual in which euphoric children frolic rapturously, often in domestic settings. Nap Time portrays a child’s bed as an oversize bouncy playground where imaginary friends and gloomy incubi share the same playing field. Maybe This Time It’s The Angel Of Death depicts a sweet radiant winged apparition, clad in white, gliding down a household staircase, as a smiling boy looks on from the shadows. The perplexing title belies the emotional warmth and cheerful resonance of the work. Is Rogers being ironic, or is he suggesting that his boyhood self anxiously awaited death? Not his death though; we sense the angel is headed toward someone unseen. These are the conundrums that populate Rogers’s art.
In these works, childhood is depicted as kind of sinister delirium in which conflicting forces tug in every direction, and all things joyous have a dark side. To Rogers, worldly faith is corrupt, life is horrifyingly complicated, and God is a big friendly disembodied hand. It’s all surprisingly fun.