We live like this

Contemporary figurative painters, like many others, find themselves in the congested territory of searching for a distinct subject matter that has the breadth and malleability on which to build a personalised mark making language. For Greg Rook, this quest has brought him to the rich imagery of the American frontier and Wild West.

Working with a variety of mediated photographic sources, ranging from television, the internet, and film stills, Rook artificially constructs his disquieting imagery. His filmic assemblages could remain in the photographic domain as an artistic statement and carry relevance, however, his further activity of painting form the manipulated imagery, forces us to position the work within the lineage of historic figurative
painting, and thus we have a very different viewing engagement, and duration.

With the work in the recent exhibition, We live like this, Rook’s enjoyment of the paint is key. Relishing the historic weight of 'oil on canvas', with its status, directness and limitations, Rook has not tried to objectively illustrate an idea, but instead, has found a number of idiosyncratic ways in which to emphasize the physicality of the painting activity, alongside more descriptive passages. Whether this is intensified colour choices in the painting Trophy, or the piping of impasto oil paint on to the surface (akin to cake decoration) in Land grab, or perhaps the leaving of raw unpainted sections of linen in the work Interior, these techniques all contribute to partially disrupt the consistent ‘screen’ of his source imagery.

Traditionally, painting has been thought of as a window into another world, only broken through the modernist era when the objecthood of a painting was emphasised. Rook is very much aware of this lineage and has found ways of implying space, and yet, strategically disrupting parts of the surface to remind the viewer of the artifice of his constructs. Thus, metaphorically, the painting’s come across in equal measures as both idealistic and realistic. Their instinctive honesty is always undercut by a knowing awareness of the contemporary environment of their making. Just when we start to believe in an image, and its earnest symbolism, Rook’s painting processes bring us back to the ‘here’ and ‘now’ of the room in which we stand and the physicality of paint on canvas. This disruption of surface causes us to slow down our viewing engagement, to look and look again in a search for answers to our own anxieties and beliefs. With the titling of the works such as Trophy, Dust and ashes, and Hideout, Rook only intends to guide our interpretation, allowing ambiguity to remain.

Rook embraces the tradition of metaphorical painting, feeling liberated to explore and quote filmic and art historical reference points through the filter of his geographically specific imagery. He utilises the potent symbolic nature of the source material as a way to open up a conversation into our current anthropological position and beliefs. Sourced from TV and film, it is not difficult to start seeing common ground with the techniques of film narration, and with the cinematographer’s wide screen. However, Rook cleverly sees the power in the isolated film still for delivering the required message - much in the way Cindy Sherman plays with the viewer’s own subjective interpretations of a composed frozen moment.

It could be said that the themes and images of the Wild West and early American settlers have become just another movie genre -  the loner cowboy striving land and riches. Rook utilises this, encouraging us, through his cut and paste figures, to consider whether these are characters ‘acting’ in a film -  the canvas as a silver screen. However, we do not gain insight into the characters and personalities of these figures. Instead, they’re deprived of any particular identity. In the paintings High lonesome and Land grab, we witness male figures dressed as cowboys at work, performing the manual labour of constructing shelters and fences. This use of the metaphor of building, of course, speaks of simplistic frontier civilisations and the dividing of land, but further to this, it cleverly runs parallel to Rook’s own construction of space as a painter, through his assemblage of source imagery and the multiple layers of paint application. Rook acknowledges the common ground between the heroic iconography of the early settlers, defining their own identities, and the myth of the artist, searching for answers. This is further reinforced through Rook’s choice of raw brown linen to paint on, where he is playing with the embryonic relationship of the ‘ground’ of his painting, and the raw dry landscape of the imagery. Thus, it’s perhaps not stretching the imagination to see the figure in High lonesome as Rook, the painter, making his presence and position felt within the terrain of contemporary painting.

Written for the exhibition catalogue of We live like this at Lounge Gallery, London, February 2007.

©  James Brooks