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Michael La Rocque, "Contemplating Batman," 2001, acrylic on canvas
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Michael La Rocque, "Fishy Tales," 1996, acrylic on fabric
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Michael La Rocque, "Square Shooter," 1996, acrylic on fabric.
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Michael La Rocque, "The Watchers," 2001, acrylic on canvas.
MICHAEL LA ROCQUE, Staged Affects
Kamloops Art Gallery
August 25 to September 23, 2007
By Portia Priegert
The dissimulation of identity, with its promise of temporary release from social norms, has long intrigued artists. Cultures around the globe have exploited the potential of costumes and masks, including Western artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Matthew Barney. Disguise plays a central role in the concept of the carnivalesque as developed by cultural theorist Mikhail Bachtin. He sees it as a mechanism that reveals subconscious truths and opens new avenues of social access.
Kamloops-based figurative painter Michael La Rocque’s exhibition, Staged Affects, engages with this rich cultural history without breaking new critical ground. Comprised of six acrylic paintings created from 1996 to 2001, the exhibition makes reference to masked figures, surreal creatures and pop-culture icons and includes one piece, The Watchers, that evokes the invisible psychological masks of daily life. The exhibition is less a cohesive body of similarly executed work and more a loosely thematic medley reflecting the tensions of social constructs specific to Western culture.
Formally, the works are largely executed in photo-realist style and demonstrate a concern with the division of space, particularly through the use of framing and borders that increase the narrative pulse. There is a tentative exploration of alternative materials, including a red-feathered boa attached to one edge of the canvas in Swing You Dawg. But the boa, which echoes the painted neckwear of a pancake-faced woman clutching a man wearing a dog mask, seems a self-conscious afterthought, and is integrated less successfully than the patterned fabric substrate of several other works.
The triptych Jumping Through Hoops uses the vanity of a sad-eyed clown, who soars horizontally through blurred space on the central canvas, one arm extended in Superman style. His red, black and green socks are echoed in the colored strips adhered to the lower portion of the right canvas. To the left is the hoop, a painted circle positioned centrally in a square canvas. A cerulean sky seems to hold promise, but the dark-toned Ferris wheel and shrubbery creates a sharply somber counterpoint.
Contemplating Batman, another psychologically impenetrable painting, shows a man peering through his fingers, which are held in mask-like formation around his eyes. Shadows cast by his sleeves create the tufted ears of the superhero costume, while a burned-down cigarette is gripped in his lips. The figure is enclosed in a cartoon-style bubble, within a painted pseudo-frame of diagonal red and blue stripes.
The final two works, both painted in 1996, seem related in their use of surreal elements. The central figure in Square Shooter appears to be a female clad in polka-dot bra, white panties and rollerblades. But one beefy hand suggests an alternative reading of a male in drag. The other hand, an oversized lobster claw gripping a camera, and the head – a fish face with gaping maw preparing to puff on a hookah, disrupts attempts at analysis. As if in a dream, meaning skitters just beyond reach.
Fishy Tales, meanwhile, offers another curious juxtaposition. The background setting resembles an Impressionist painting of fishermen along the Seine with an elderly man grasping a small fish, perhaps to remove a hook. In the lower foreground, two odd reptilian creatures, one playing an accordion and the other equipped with shower cap, bow tie, high heels and guitar, sway across the picture plane.
Like the woman caught in a moment of private reflection in The Watchers, this exhibition flirts with the tensions between revelation and mystery, reality and imagination, voyeurism and exhibitionism. But La Rocque reflects more than he disrupts. Ultimately, he leaves his subjects’ masks in place, revealing little of their inner psychology. Staged Affects seems infused with resignation about the inevitability of disguise and the futility of seeking authentic social contact.