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"Studies in Citizenship"
Bill Rodgers, "Studies in Citizenship," oil on canvas, 2008/09, 24" X 20".
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Bill Rodgers, "Echo," 2009, acrylic, foamcore, wood, glass, nine framed works each 13" x 11", 48" X 45".
BILL RODGERS, Studies in Citizenship
October 15 to November 14, 2009
Skew Gallery, Calgary
By Liz Wylie
As a one-off exploration while in the thick of working on another, unrelated series of paintings, Calgary-based artist Bill Rodgers decided one day to reproduce in paint the cover of an old book that had belonged to his grandparents. The next two years were spent working solidly on the group of 18 paintings that make up the central component in this exhibition, Studies in Citizenship. Such are the compulsions that lead to obsessions that can consume any of us.
These paintings strike a heartfelt chord, with a matter-of-factness that echoes the attitudes and cultural ideals/norms inherent in the books themselves. Sample titles include Foods and Homemaking, Canada Sings, Outdoors with a Camera in Canada, and Harvesting Your Milk Crop. Each title appears lettered onto a solid-colour cover, reproduced faithfully by Rodgers. Looking at these works, we may feel some fond nostalgia for the bygone days of the early years of Canadian nationhood and the homespun values implicit in the titles.
Each painted book cover sits frontally on a loosely brushed white ground, on a 24- by 20-inch, commercially prepared canvas. Rather than situating the books within a traditional still-life setting, Rodgers chose to float them on these blank rectangles, doubtless a nod (perhaps partially tongue-in-cheek) to modernist purity. Indeed, we may call to mind the decades-long series of nested, differently coloured squares, “Homage to the Square”, produced by Bauhaus painter Josef Albers in the middle of the last century. Gently removed from any previous real context, the books float, disembodied, anchored only by trompe l’oeil shadows cast below their bottom edges.
In keeping with the work ethic espoused in the texts of the books, Rodgers uses ancient techniques of transferring proportions and measurements from his models to his paintings with the aid of a vernier calliper, all by steady eye and hand. He has been intent on a workmanlike approach, in which his dutiful copying was not in the service of the divine (as was the case with medieval monks copying manuscripts), but in devotion to the nobility of labour and construction.
There are also two accompanying suites of work: nine each of paintings and drawings on paper — the former in one-quarter scale, the latter the tracings on tissue used to create the templates for the paintings on canvas. Each of these has been glazed in interruption glass, installed in offices to create privacy, a material that has long fascinated the artist. The effect of this, naturally, is frustrating, as we cannot see the works properly, prompting us to question the nature and meaning of our desire to see more clearly. Our feelings are minor and passing — these works are only the backup singers to the main act, which is the grid of 18 paintings, seen uninterrupted.