image from The Infinite Landscape.

Dirt & Diamonds.jpg

I’m color blind and can’t/don’t draw so as a visual artist I’ve had to develop non-traditional methods of using paint, photos, materials and text to convey my point-of-view.

So be it. -CR

By Alex Priest, curator for the Bemis Art Center in Omaha, NE.

“Craig Roper’s content-rich, process-oriented work is an ever-evolving landscape. Referencing the culture and ethos of the western landscape, Roper considers himself a “landscape artist”, and includes imagery and traces of road trips, guns, cars, driving, signage, textures, and the debris of the land to form an encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Moving beyond a singular medium, he continually reworks old work into new. His intent is to move each piece so far beyond the original that is morphs into something else.” Sept. -2016

By J. Fatima Martins. 10-2017

In early September, Lincoln-based Craig Roper opened the exhibition ”I Live in My World Now and I’m Happy Here” at Iron Tail Gallery.

In August, Roper promoted the exhibition with a silly picture of himself sitting inside a metal cattle stock tank 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 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 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 un-bundled 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 ghosts.

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 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 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 West.”

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 aesthetic 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 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.” -J. Fatima Martins

JOURNEY INTO TRUE WEST. Kearney, Nebraska

By Hanna Jorgensen, -Sept. 2013

Nebraska artist Craig Roper has been “discovering art” for over 35 years. Despite the fact that he is color blind, Roper has still been able to be inspired by his life and the landscape around him to produce bodies of work that he is passionate about.Roper best describes this body of work as “a road trip through my inner western landscape.” He says, “for the most part, the work is raw, crudely executed, fairly minimal, and for me a post mid-life affirmation of my life experiences, beliefs and point-of-view as an artist.”

Roper’s plan for this exhibition was to “pull in with a couple truck loads of stuff and see what happened.” The university lent Roper the services of three art majors, a studio artist, an educator, and a history major to help him arrange, rearrange, cluster, expand and edit the show. The result “hit the mark” Roper said. “Symbolically, I love that this exhibition is in Kearney. Having driven from coast to coast several times and across the vast length of Nebraska dozens of times, I’ve always considered Kearney, Nebraska THE point where the Eastern United States and the West collide and separate.”

Jorgensen: First, I will be honest, I had never heard of your name when I first walked into the gallery. Who are you and how did you get started as an artist? Where did you study, if at all?

Roper: I am a 57-year-old guy born and raised in Nebraska, who has been discovering art for 35 plus years. The first art class I ever took was when I was 21. I was desperate to find a direction, any direction, for my life. Eventually, I found my passion by taking a number of art and photography courses in college. I received a B.F.A. in 1980 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and 16 years later an M.F.A. from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Between those degrees I lived in California, New York City and Lincoln.

Jorgensen: How would you describe your artistic style? What makes it unique?

Roper: I don’t like to label or classify my style; I’ll gladly leave that to others. However, I do think my work is unique because, at long last and after much work, it is uniquely “me.”

Jorgensen: During your childhood, what triggered your desire to become an artist?

Roper: I never wanted to be an artist as a child or as an adolescent nor as a young adult. I didn’t know what was in store for me. I’m color-blind and can’t draw, probably not a good start to aspiring to be an artist.

Jorgensen: Why do you make art? What inspires you?

Roper: I make art because I have to. It is who I am, it is what I do, and it keeps me sane and happy. I love the process, the discovery, the challenge. I don’t know what inspires me to make what I do, probably just my life in general.

Jorgensen: What would you tell a student considering becoming an art major?

Roper: Learning to appreciate the critical process is all part of a great life education. Everyone in the arts has different goals and paths, but as trite as it sounds, “follow your passion!” and you’ll be OK.

Jorgensen: What inspired you to create the pieces in your exhibit “True West?”

Roper: About three years ago I decided I needed to re-examine and reevaluate my life’s work, ask what pieces, or body of work, had lasting impact for me? Which of my numerous directions worked best, worked worst? What pieces were truly important to me? What was I about as an artist? I concluded that my best work was about the life and land immediately around me. Somehow, I’ve managed to pull together all my various styles and material approaches to making art into one, fairly effortless, free-flowing body of content.

Jorgensen: Can you describe your True West exhibit in one sentence?

Roper: A road trip through my inner western landscape.

Jorgensen: How does your exhibit relate to UNK and the Kearney Community? Why would UNK and Kearney citizens find it appealing?

Roper: Symbolically, I love that this exhibition is in Kearney. Having driven from coast to coast several times, and across the vast length of Nebraska dozens of times, I’ve always considered Kearney, Neb. THE point where the Eastern United States and the West collide and separate. East of Kearney is heavily agricultural; the industrial Midwest, the well-established East Coast and the Atlantic Ocean. To the West are ranches, grasslands, the Sandhills, the Badlands, the Rockies, the Mojave Desert and the Pacific states. You can see and feel the geography and culture of this country shift near Kearney as you roar through heavily traveled I-80 or rumble along the historic Lincoln Highway.

-Sept. 2013

By Cindy Lange-Kubick for The Lincoln Journal Star. October, 2017

**********

The artist arrived late to his own party at Iron Tail Gallery last week.

He couldn’t help himself.

Craig Roper has been making art — and attending his art show openings — for decades. He’d promoted this show, like always. Emailing invitations and sharing them on Facebook — a kitschy portrait of his 61-year-old self in swim trunks, smiling from a stock tank full of water in his back yard, a pink flamingo in the foreground.

He’d given the show a name: I Live In My Own World Now And I’m Happy Here.

Yet there he was at home last Friday, far from happy and miles from the accordion music and the Mezcal margaritas and the 23 pieces of art he’d created, pacing the floor, reluctant to leave.

“I felt like someone on stage for their first leading role,” Roper said Wednesday. “Afraid of being a huge flop.”

Because this show was different.

His art wasn’t for sale.

It was for free.

“One piece per person,” he’d written on the postcard. “First come, first serve …”

Roper had been enamored with the concept of giving away his art when he'd come up with it a few months ago, a unique way to celebrate 40 years of creativity.

But then the show got closer. Thoughts started ping-ponging around in his head. What if nobody comes? What if I can’t even give my art away?

“I started to think maybe six people would show up and maybe four people would want something and I’d have to take it all back home and shove it in some dark corner of the basement.”

I’d tried to talk Roper into sharing his experiment in philanthropy (and making an end run around the vagaries of the art market) a few days before the First Friday opening. Thanks, but no thanks, he’d said. ( What if nobody comes?)

This wasn’t a garage sale art show — a box at the curb with a hand-painted sign: PLEASE TAKE.

He’d put his heart into the endeavor. “I didn’t want to have a hodgepodge of things scattered around. I wanted to present new, fresh work and put on a really good show.”

He set to work in his studio, ending up with a series of small photographs, a few weighted down with objects, sparkling fake diamonds or chunks of lava or shell casings. And larger works, simple painted frames with pieces of pickup bed lining inside, some intact, some laced with bullet holes. ( What if I can’t even give my art away? )

He was happy with it.

The gallery’s owners, Marie Kisling and Anthony Slattery, were happy with it.

But would anyone want it?

I felt Roper’s pain. It’s the fear of the comedian on amateur night, the songwriter at open mic, the new kid on the first day of school. The insecurity of anyone who's raised their hand, asked someone out on a date, said I love you first.

Roper creates because that’s who he is, he told me.

“It keeps me sane,” he said. “I do it out of necessity. I never stop working on something until I love it, until something about it surprises me.”

Roper grew up in Lincoln and fell in love with photography and then painting at UNL, where he got his bachelor's and master's degrees in fine art.

He began selling and showing his work in the early '80s, moving to Southern California and then back home again. His work is owned by collectors, sold in galleries, included in the collections of museums from coast to coast.

In Lincoln, he’s had solo shows and group events, curated shows, served on boards, opened up his studio to art connoisseurs and mixed media tire-kickers.

But he doesn’t make a living with his art. His day job is managing Sydney Lynch Jewelry. (Roper is married to the fine-art jewelry maker.)

And he creates more than he sells. “I love the making,” Roper explains.

Wednesday I went to see what he’d made. I was enamored with the photographs. Intrigued by the bullet-ridden pickup beds.

And next to each piece of Roper's art on the Iron Tail Gallery’s walls, I was happy to find small pieces of white paper with handwritten names and phone numbers.

People had started lining up early Friday, Kisling said.

And when it began to rain a few minutes before 7 p.m., they’d opened the gallery doors and handed out pens.

“You’re giving away pens?” someone asked.

“No, we’re giving you a pen so you can sign up for a piece of art,” Kisling answered.

By 7:08, every piece of art had a new home.

When Roper finally mustered the nerve to make an appearance 40 minutes later, the gallery was full of people — many of them new owners of original art — enjoying the party without its star.

Kisling tried to get a slow clap going, but failed.

Which didn’t seem to matter to Roper. He was blinking “a lot more than usual,” the gallery owner said.

True, the artist said.

“It was very emotional. To get my work out to people who will take care of it, I can’t tell you — I’m still on cloud nine.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com

On Twitter @TheRealCLK .

by J. Fatima Martins for Art Move Magazine

Craig Roper in "Nebraska Rising"

On view through September 17, 2016

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