Rory Devine: Tragic Kingdom
CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles
9 February - 16 March 2014
By ANGEL CHEN, MAR. 15, 2014
Tragic Kingdom by Rory Devine contains multitudes, complexities, and spans the range of human emotion from LOL to nervous breakdown. The gestalt of the show takes us on a spin cycle of pop culture's loneliest moments, empty spaces, poignant greatest-hits of nostalgia, and investigates the human experience through portraiture, laughing crowds and empty lecture halls. Further, the missing parts are integrated or completed despite unspoken irony in the cavernous gallery. The melodramatic 20-foot red velvet curtain, (reminiscent of David Lynch) is punctuated by a mute ventriloquist dummy on a pedestal, whose presence oversees your viewing of the show. Small and silent, with untold grandmaster powers, the dummy never speaks, but the clues are laid out within the paintings. We are guided through the exhibition by text pieces directing the viewer to "Abandon all that you know," and that "You don't have to overcome your confusion, you only have to feel," amid portraits of dead rock stars and fallen heavyweight champs.
As though the artist is about to spring out from behind the curtain, and the viewer is among the friends sharing the joke, or rather, looking in from the outside, we experience myriad emotional responses and depths. The show intrigues and delights while leading the audience through scenes as absurd as misplaced deer baffled among household appliances in a parking lot, to the man behind the mask playing electric guitar solo in the video work Untitled (You can't get there from here). The quiet spectacle inside Untitled, (the painting of the year) reverberates with the impact of the world's laughable mishaps and the ones from which a person might never recover. These are the patterns in the fabric of life discovered within Rory Devine's exhibition, encapsulating both personal and cultural history, and asking the big questions, like what happened and how did we get here. Whitehot’s Angel Chen asks Devine some questions in return.
ANGEL CHEN: The title Tragic Kingdom sounds grand and morose at the same time. Evidence of a very dry humor, certainly. Tell us about how you mean to set up the viewing experience.
RORY DEVINE: I was interested in creating an environmental experience, one where you felt physically present with the work. The gallery itself is a rather imposing space, one that I'm not always comfortable in. I wanted to acknowledge that, and work with it as opposed to trying to compete with the space. The title of Tragic Kingdom seemed to apply to the work, my interests in life's melodrama and the personal tragedies we all carry around with us. Emotional baggage that makes us who we are. Plus, being in Los Angeles, it seemed appropriate to have a kind of cinematic title, as well as the obvious proximity to Disneyland. It also happens to be the title of the band No Doubt's first big record. It's a lot better than my original title of the show which was going to be, Learn To Shut Your Mouth.
AC: The ventriloquist dummy seems personal and specific -- is it?
RD: It is both. When I was about six years old, I got a ventriloquist dummy for Christmas. It was my best gift ever. I carried him around everywhere, practiced ventriloquism as diligently as I could, and told him my deepest darkest secrets, whatever they may have been at that age! I used him to talk for me, being a rather shy kid, and got a great deal of comfort from his presence. I never felt lonely with him. He was my closest companion for about three years. Not too long ago, I came across a picture of me holding him in my lap. It made me both very happy and sad. Happy because I had forgotten all about him. And sad, because I did forget all about him. It made me reflect on how many losses we experience in life, through our own design or through circumstance. How something could be so important to me could be left behind. It seemed very sad, tragic even, to me. He also acts as a kind of surrogate for the artist in a more general sense, whose voice is echoed in paintings.
AC: One of my personal favorites is the Felix Gonzalez-Torres-reminiscent deflated balloons piece in the front of the gallery. The title alone makes my heart leap. What is the impetus for this, and how did you choose to include it in the show?
RD: Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a great artist. What he could do, so minimally, with striking an emotional chord with the viewer and actively calling for his audience to participate in the work’s meaning -- it’s really powerful. Experiencing his work was one of the first times I had such a strong connection to a piece of contemporary art. When I was a much younger artist, I used to write fan letters to artists I admired. Like one does with movie stars. He actually wrote me back, and sent me a Polaroid of his beloved cat. I still have it. The piece, Untitled (For lost pets and dead friends) is definitely influenced by his work. I mean come on, it's just a bunch of deflated balloons! But it’s so much more. With this piece, and its title, I'm asking the viewer to bring their own specific experiences to the work to give it meaning. I think the title is rather obvious, and again, it fits in with my interest in inducing some kind of real emotional response in the viewer. It seemed to me to be a natural for this particular show. By the way, I still write fan messages to artists, only now I do it through Facebook.
AC: The theatricality of the curtains and their grandeur especially in CB1's dignified and cavernous space, seems to prompt us in waiting for the show to begin… Can you comment on how that aspect of the installation came about?
RD: That's what I was going for. That feeling of excitement, you know, before you go see a band or a play, when the moment is filled with so much expectation and anticipation. We bring so much personal experience to things, so much subjectivity, often it's hard for anything to live up to them. The curtain also has other meanings to me -- of oppression (like the Nazis, with their ceremonial banners, Fascist rallies; or a kind of vaudeville act where something dreamlike is going to happen) as well as you said, in Clyde's space, with the 23-foot ceilings, it helps to be able to have a work that can hold that back wall. I don't work very large, and was dreading having to come up with something for that wall. I believe that the curtain sets a tone for the rest of the work to be viewed within.
AC: The crowds and the empty spaces, they seem to be a show unto themselves, speaking about the company we keep and the experience of community or the loss of it. Can you elucidate your relationships to these people and the meaning of their presence in your work?
RD: Um... they have no specific meaning to me as individuals except when I'm trying to render them from the stock photo with which I'm working. They're extras… It's the scene itself, the group, and group dynamics, the group’s reaction to whatever they are listening to. It's all very 19th century, like a Jeff Wall photo. Obviously it’s also a painting, of a photograph, the photographer is anonymous to me, and it is a painting, and all paintings, to me, refer to some other specific painting. There is a narrative somewhere in them, like stills from a sci-fi film, where the monster is about to appear maybe. I don't know. I don't assign them titles until I finish them, and then I give them the most obvious one I can think of. It's better that way. And yes, they are about community, and the loss of it. These people collected together will soon disperse, and be on their own again. This sense of community is a temporary thing. In the work of the empty lecture hall, the lack of people acts as a sort of counterpoint to the audience paintings. To me, this painting has a very 2001, Kubrick association, with its graphic color scheme and sterile environment.
AC: There is a variety of artistic styles at work in your show -- from conceptualism to figurative painting to geometric abstraction -- that is not typically seen in a solo exhibition. Artists are told to focus on one genre and become a painter or a sculptor or a conceptual artist. You are moving between métiers and combining/juxtaposing them, exercising freedom through myriad forms. And on top of that, you also curate shows, write, make music, films, etc. What do you feel you express through painting as opposed to theatricality and text? When or why do you choose one medium or another?
RD: In my own work, I've never made much of a distinction between making an abstract painting versus a figurative work, or an overly conceptual work versus a more traditional art work. To me, it all comes back to trying to make a painting, a work that has interest for me and hopefully some resonance to the the viewer. This was one of the few things I learned in art school, that you could really do whatever you wanted as an artist. I don't really think it matters which medium I use, it's the experience of making art that holds my interest. I like that my paintings are read first and seen after, their painterliness, the composition, what they're about. I think the role of the artist is to make some kind of honest commentary about the time in which they produce art. Art history kind of takes care of the rest, if you're one of the lucky ones.
AC: The text painting, You Don't Have to Overcome Your Confusion, You Only Have to Feel seems to sum something up. What does it sum up and for whom?
RD: It's for the viewer, for this particular show. If they're somehow confused at the various paintings, their sequence, or the particular narrative they choose to follow, that's okay. What they bring to it on an emotional level is also valid, and helps make them complicit in the work’s meaning. I wanted to make it feel like the Star Wars intro, so it's got that infinity perspective. Again it's very obvious, but...
AC: Can you talk a bit about the video , Untitled (You Can't Get There From Here)? What meaning does it have for the show?
RD: The video is a collaboration between Keith Walsh and myself. Keith came up with the score, and I staged and conceived the performance. The video is meant to function in two ways -- first, as a soundtrack to the show. Its meandering chords make you feel like you are floating through the gallery. It's kind of road movie-esque, and provides a little more of a narrative to the paintings. It also functions as presenting another surrogate for the absent artist. The guitar player’s masked face and nondescript attire reference a horror movie character (like a Michael Myers, or a Jason Voorhees), and make him a formidable counterpart to the ventriloquist dummy. I couldn't really conceive of this show without the video, it was really the impetus for the entire installation aspect.
AC: I appreciate the curated show in the project room as a community of artists whose works seem to inspire and influence yours. Is that how you were thinking of the West Gallery? Its title, Capture the Rapture implies that painting has the ability to freeze intangible ecstatic emotions in time and material.
RD: In a sense, yes. Being a painter is part of a relatively small community, at least between LA and NYC. Jack Davidson works in Barcelona. These are all artists whose work I very much admire, and I guess I would say have influenced my work to some degree, in ways that I might not even be aware of. I was thinking about work that could stand the test of time, and which has. These artists have all been making consistent work for over 20 years, which somehow is important to me. All the work is considerably different than mine, yet I felt a connection to each and every piece in the show. Both shows are about investigating painting’s relationship to the viewers’ expectations and personal histories, as well as color and form and content. It's been great being able to introduce some of this work which might not be shown in LA. Its title comes from a Patti Smith lyric, from the song Frederick. I wanted the show to be about a certain kind of pleasure one gets in viewing a pared down painting, reduced to the work’s formal concepts, with a variety of ways of achieving this pleasure. Color, line, shape, material, medium -- all of these ideas are addressed in the show.
AC: Speaking of curating shows, you ran TRI Gallery years ago in Los Angeles, where you had a reputation for spotting and nurturing young talent. How was this experience for being as an artist and gallerist concurrently? Who are some of the artists you exhibited, and where are they now?
RD: I loved working with artists and trying to help promote their work. I was good at it, to a point. It helped me be a more generous artist. I learned a lot. It did overshadow my identity as an artist. I was making more conceptual work back then, and I came to look at the gallery as a piece unto itself. Like it was some kind of living sculpture. It worked for a while. People didn't really know me as an artist, which I found frustrating to some degree. TRI Gallery showed some really great artists in its day, from the original three-person show format, to group shows, and then onto solo shows by artists from both coasts. I'm proud of the roster of artists TRI showed -- to name some, Amy Adler, Lutz Bacher, Carter Potter, Fred Fehlau, Doug Hammett, Mary Heilmann, Richard Hawkins, Larry Mantello, Monica Majoli, Marilyn Minter, Sarah Morris, Laura Howe, Trudie Reiss, John Souza...
AC: It used to be discouraged for artists to have any relationship to the commercial side of the art world, and now there is a bit more freedom. What is your view on this and the separation of creativity from the business side.
RD: Well, I’m not really interested in the business or commercial side of the art world except when sales of works makes it easier to be an artist, then I'm very interested! It helps having a gallery, and a dealer who supports the work and genuinely promotes it. I'm lucky to have that at CB1.
AC: Musicians often self-produce, actors write, direct, produce, and star in a show and it is well loved by the audience and critics. Would you ever put yourself in a show you curated?
RD: Probably not. I've only done it once, where it was a salon-style painting show, then it seemed an appropriate instance to include myself. When I curate shows, I believe that the curatorial process is a work unto itself, the curator's stamp is all over the works, in a way. It helps to have an idea and then execute it, through the selection of artists and particular works. I wouldn't rule out putting myself in a show that I've curated, but for me that probably is a long shot, I like to keep the activities separate if possible. It can be a bit like an Eddie Murphy movie, where he plays too many roles. WM
Rory Devine is an artist who currently resides in New York. His work is in many private collections as well as the Santa Monica Museum collection. cb1gallery.com.
Angel Chen is a Los Angeles based artist/writer. Born in Taipei, raised in Southern California, she earned a BFA from UCLA and an MFA from Calarts, also received the Ahmanson award and distinguished art fellowships from Skowhegan and Atlantic Center for the Arts, and created a 20 foot commission for the Annenberg Foundation. She has written arts coverage on the Venice Biennale, Basel Art Fair, and Shanghai Art Fair. You can find her at angel-chen.com.