Sept. -Oct. 2017.
Craig Roper’s Infinite Landscape: I Live in My Own World Now and I’m
Happy Here at Iron Tail Gallery, September - October 2017
In early September, Lincoln-based Craig Roper opened the exhibition I
Live in My Own World Now and I’m Happy Here at Iron Tail Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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 forces 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 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 his 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. 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.
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
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 Roper’s show at Iron Tail notice, and then synthesize
the four interconnected components:
1.)a stack of his own landscape photographs which is an unbundled
selection, a freer version of his now famous ‘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 childish and
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 point 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
Schama, in his book “Landscape and Memory” details how the land -
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
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 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 exhibitions, 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
What Roper is doing is giving us an intelligent way to consider the
sad reality of 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 are 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 and exorcism of
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.” -J. Fatima Martins
"Craig Roper's content-rich, process-oriented work is an ever-evolving landscape. Referencing the culture and ethos of The West, Roper considers himself a "landscape artist", and includes imagery and traces of road trips, guns, signage and the textures of the land to form an encyclopedia of The Great Plains. Moving beyond any singular media, he continually reworks old work into new. His intent is to move each piece so far beyond the original that it morphs into something else."
-Alex Priest. curator, Bemis Center for the Arts, Omaha, NE
On Craig Roper, by J. Fatima Martins for Art Move Magazine
Craig Roper in "Nebraska Rising"
The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art
724 S. 12th St., Omaha, Nebraska
Conceptual installation artist and curator, Craig Roper, who's widely known for his "Photo Bundles," layered, mixed-media constructions which take the form of mini-agricultural geometric haystacks made of industrial man-made materials, continues his exploration into how the landscape has been altered by human intervention. In "Nebraska Rising"he is showing five of his most iconic and diverse pieces: "Dirty Shooter", "Paintings Crushed by Rocks, Stumps and Debris," "Photo Bundles," "Empire," and "Badlands."
In all his work, the prominent motif, either real or imagined, is always aggressive human trespassing upon the land. Roper creates his smart dialogues, which are sometimes quite poetic, with a serious comic awareness generating a cheeky and witty energy that often mystifies his audience. His installations are fragmented immersive interpretations evoking the act of passing through wide open spaces while carrying with you, leaving behind, or discovering the artificiality and constructs of civilization. He pulls out details and nuances that are often ignored, or highlights conspicuous features to generate anxiety and questions.
In installations such as "Paintings Crushed by Rocks,Stumps, and Debris" he's commenting on the ridiculousness of the formalist and academic art world itself while at the same time elevating his observations about the destruction of natural beauty. He's also a deep observer of contemporary culture, borrowing without judgement pop-culture motifs and transforming them into insightful and sometimes uncomfortable narratives that spotlight the contemporary polemic against masculinity. There is a 'wild-west' feel to Roper's work that is coupled with a raw urban aesthetic. Roper engages the fine-line between primitivism and fine-art. The ugly is beautiful to him. His work is a powerful slow burning mixture of studied planning and involuntary emotionality.
-J. Fatima Martins. Sept. 2016