Inga Rommer at the Slide Room Gallery/at the Fifty-Fifty

[This review originally appeared in Fault Line in the Spring of 2006. Rommer had previously exhibited at the Slide Room Gallery and I had help to install the work, in the collaborative, intuitive way the artist prefers. When she exhibited again at the Fifty-Fifty, it afforded m the opportunity to address this experience a second time.] 

“Yes that’s better. It’s like before, Baroque.” I am helping to hang a show of Inga Romer’s paintings in the front room of the Fifty-Fifty Arts Collective. This is the second time we’ve worked together this way, and the language used to communicate questions of placement has become pared-down. “Yes, that’s it”, or “It’s too much”, are momentarily enough: the relative colour, scale, and proximity of the paintings in relation to one another, how high or low on the walls they need to be, and also what kinds of correspondences the different works maintain between their own tenuous connection and the architectural foibles of the space. But why “Baroque?” Romer is hanging the work in what she refers to as a ‘rhizomatic crawl’: paintings spread out across space, hopscotching from low to high, paired off or strung along. The paintings are not evenly sized or spaced, and a lot of their impact as a grouping would seem to depend upon a certain random energy in their placement. Having said that, our discussion when hanging the pieces is distinctly contemplative. The first time I stepped into a roomful of Rommer’s work (the MFA graduate show at the University of Victoria) I sensed the space drifting apart from the raucous concourse: it became distinctly open and light, drafty even. Trying to read Romer’s paintings as forcefully energetic fails: there is a specific awkwardness in their coming together compositionally. The painted forms – overlays of variously coloured line-work depicting objects but especially parts of places – mostly do not create a central concern of the kind that agitates a speculative view and absorbs and throws back a direct gaze. Areas of ignition between the overlays -and there are many- do not gradually arrive at some bigger constellation or vortex of attention. Instead, they shift the penetrative gaze to one side. The eye catches one form, is drawn into another, and can often seem to slide right off the surface. In this sense, the pictures are not ‘tight’: old-school painting-argot for a will to self-reflexivity, autonomy and implied pleasure-as-rigour whose most famous name-check is Cezanne. Trailing off of the edge of one of Rommer’s painting, the viewer’s attention might as easily slip onto a piece of nearby ductwork as onto the loose strands of an adjacent picture, most likely both. The pictures can be almost vacuously clean looking, but the relations are promiscuous and run to plurality. Looking for ‘rhizomatic’ I refer myself to an essay by Gilles Deleuze, “Rhizome Versus Trees”…Deleuze says that the model of fragmentation so ingrained in the modern experience (from cubist collage to The Wasteland to twelve-tone music) always refers back to a centre, which has been lost but is still present as a conspicuous, magnetic absence. The rhizome is something else: a network of independent parts whose relationship is not held together by the anti-matter of loss, but by momentary, arbitrary contingencies…Modular, but endlessly incompatible. The week I read this definition, I went to see the Fantastic Frameworks show at the AGGV and wandered into Yayoi Kusama’s tentacle-like polka-dotted forms sprouting from the floor. The pieces look uncannily sensible (sensitive and/or sense-able), meaning that the dots -which one gradually recognizes have all been painted by hand- keep pushing the bright, matte colour-shapes into an optical-tactile tug of war that makes them visually very mobile. One minute they’re a bit of graphic interference, the next minute they’re rigid silhouettes against a flat blur of wall. The accumulative effect of repeatedly apprehending the forms from different points of view is a powerful sensation of stasis (those hand-dotted dots) fighting with a creeping suspicion of immanent animation. My suspicion is that Rommer’s works are also working out of the confusion of static/ dynamic relations. Her colours effect a shift from form to form via inscrutable likeness –tone on tone, as in the steely grey blues descending into cast iron blacks or oily flat browns – or analogous hues, typically vibrating yellows, oranges, reds or crimsons, whose juxtaposition seems to create a ‘third man’, an added sense of richness and profusion. This kind of palette could be traced back through painters the artist is certainly very familiar with, Oskar Kokoschka and (a generation earlier) Lovis Corinth. Both use a slippery palette and a demonstrative, generous hand to create leaps from stroke to stroke and form to form. Thus a lot of classic Kokoschka (and much late Corinth) looks like meat falling off the bone, recalling the cook’s definition of the verb ‘render’. This approach deployed in heroic figural tableau expresses a compressed version of the Baroque ‘grand tragic drama’, as in Kokoschka’s Windsbraut of 1912, or Corinth’s fin de siècle scenes of the deposition. Romer’s compositions lack the urgency engendered by the presence of dramatis personae, thus the ‘weakness’. It is replaced with a connection to the space, and colours that no longer look as if their flesh (as it were) wears any bones at all, at least within the limits of the support. Instead, the grounds of her canvasses (tailor-mades with flat, titanium-acrylic finish) collude with the walls of the space, and the slips of colour half-fixing the forms, the outer-extent of the grasp of our sensations, like afterimages of glare, roving from one blank spot to another. There is a figure, then, in Rommer’s installations, that is, the viewer as a passive character, gradually pulled apart by the tangents of experience. At its best, Romer’s installations feel ‘Baroque’, because the development of a subject through a dynamic (yet monumental, = encompassing) movement from one state through many others is –as in The Ecstasy of St. Theresa or a Fugue by Purcell- a subject of the Baroque. Recently I found myself at a Christmas party with the artist, leaning over a living room railing that opened out onto a sudden drop. It turned out to be an indoor swimming pool that had been drained for ages, and was dark, cracked and patched, magnifying its depths. To look at it, was to feel an internal lurch forming in the chest, a convex-surface-of-the-moon. One became much too conscious of the rail as part of a formula in which the torso needed to supply its rightful half of some obscure but resonant angle. “You’re going to use this space aren’t you” I said. “Yeah, I guess I have to”, she said.

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