Wayne Roosa, artist and art historian, will be displaying his 2010 series, In the Slipstream, at the First Things offices beginning February 16, 2012. (For more information on the opening night event, click here.)
A professor of art history at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chair of the New York Center for Art and Media Studies (NYCAMS), Roosa has been a research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities research grant. His writings deal with contemporary art as well as the role of faith in art.
In anticipation of the show, First Things’ Matthew Cantirino spoke to Roosa about his art.
Q: What should people who view your work know about your background?
A: I began college as a philosophy major, a discipline I still read in, but soon found that I needed to make expressive idea-objects by hand, given my childhood where my father built everything plus my love of art. So I shifted to painting and drawing. Having almost completed that degree, I went through an intense period of searching, which was both personal and intellectual, leading me to drop out of college and read theology for six months.
Eventually, I obtained a Ph.D. in modern and contemporary art. But having that kind of restless interest in multiple areas was entirely related to how everything is connected and swimming simultaneously through culture and time together.
Q: What inspired In the Slipstream?
A: The In the Slipstream diptychs were created when I was researching the origins of language, writing, and mark-making. I was fascinated by the diversity of ancient systems for “writing,” such as pictograms, hieroglyphs, and cuneiform, to name a few. The shift into more abstract modes of writing through the alphabet greatly advanced it into far more conceptually abstract forms. While considering these matters, I began to notice visual echoes in the way that nature and our scientific systems of symbols and diagrams have their own “alphabets,” “pictograms” and “hieroglyphics.” Skeins of bacteria seen under a microscope and diagrams of DNA helixes for instance, all bear a visual resemblance to “writing”—the writing of humans and of the logos of nature and creation.
All of this exists in a complex free-flow between the natural world and human meaning. The In the Slipstream diptychs have elements of all these systems borne by the fluidity of watercolor and the artist’s hand in drawing—color and drawing as another form of “writing.”
Q: So these designs (cave writings, DNA sequences, etc) all comprise part of the work. What other recognizable images populate the series?
A: In the Slipstream (i), for example, has microscopic viral colonies floating in the ether of a cool gray wash. In (xii), two different architectures are suspended as neighbors within one color field. One being the architecture of biology expressed in human chromosomes interspersed with viral colonies; the other being ground plans for tract houses in suburban neighborhoods.
Q: Can you say more about your use of the word “slipstream”?
A: As part of my artist’s statement, I altered a standard dictionary definition of the word:
slip·stream: \slip-strm\ noun 1: a current of air or water driven back by a propeller; a partial vacuum created in the wake of something; an assisting force drawing something along behind something else 2: a surging flow bearing everything along in the swirling eddies and whirlpools of its wake 3: a logos, a profusion of alphabets, viral colonies, DNA helixes, chromosomes, swimming sperm, children’s drawings, hieroglyphs, symbols, star charts, color, light, random marks, scribbles and signs drafting in the germination of fluid washes of watercolor and gouache 7: a gyrating waltz dragging elegance, spasms and violence along its cupped surface or down into its dark undertow 9: a mystery drafting everything suspended in the turbulent, fecund stream of its wake
Q: Does most of your work follow the abstract style of In the Slipstream?
A: No. I basically have two thrusts in my visual explorations. One is the kind of abstract style seen in the Slipstream series. Although “abstract,” this imagery is grounded in the external landscape of nature and the internal “inscape” (to borrow Gerard Manley Hopkins’ term) of the mind and soul.
The other thrust of my work is more cranky, socio-political, cultural and religious criticism. It comes in the forms of collage and eraser prints, such as the Ideas of Order series.
Q: In addition to your work as an artist, you have also established yourself as an art historian. Can you tell us more about your interests there, and perhaps how the academic study of art aids (or doesn’t) the actual process of creating it?
A: I already mentioned something of how I got into art history. I would add here that one reason I love art history is that as a discipline it requires a multifaceted approach to human meaning and expression. You cannot do art history well without investigating everything from aesthetic and formal matters to the nature of materials to the contexts of social, religious, political, economic, racial, and sexual orders, not to mention the methodological and linguistic lenses through which we view such layers of phenomena.
My experience of art’s multiple histories is as something living, made by persons in dynamic response to their lives and meaning, and not in response to something academic called “the history of art.” So this attitude towards art history makes it lively and relevant to making art.
Q: So how do you see your faith and your art interacting, ideally?
A: That question is important but it can lead into ways of thinking that become cul-de-sacs. First of all, every artist who is also a thoughtful person has beliefs—a faith—about what we are and what it means to be here and to act and express. This is as true of a strict materialist as it is of a theist.
Yet the wrong kind of focus on “interaction” or “integration” can turn the “problem of integration” itself into the subject. This can lead to narrow polemics that are an artistic dead-end, whether the goal is sacred or secular.
When T.S. Eliot gave his lectures on the varieties of metaphysical poetry, he said the failures were hybrids of two kinds: poetic philosophy and philosophical poetry. He actually used the word “occult” to characterize their inadequacies. The successful poems happened when these two things “were fused at such a high temperature that they became a new entity in their own right.”
I also like a childhood analogy for the problem. When I was a little kid learning to ride a bike, I kept looking straight down at the front wheel to see if I was falling over. As a result, the front wheel wobbled and I fell over. My father told me to stop looking down and instead just to look ahead, forget about myself and enjoy the ride.
Q: What insight do you think contemporary art might gain from more fully engaging a Christian perspective? Conversely, what might Christianity gain by opening up more fully to contemporary art? As I’m sure you well know, there are people in both groups who are deeply suspicious of the other.
A: I fully believe that people in both groups could benefit from genuine conversation about contemporary art and Christian perspective. But it is difficult because what is meant—and what is heard—by “Christian perspective” ranges from deep loving humility to politicized agendas using the name.
In his essay, Naming and Being, Walker Percy says that when we have an authentic experience, we immediately name it, in order to retain it. Such naming is, he says, “a co-celebration” between the namer, the hearer of the name and the authentic things and experiences named. I take “naming” to mean all language, art and so on. Baudrillard claimed that originally such naming occurred within a sacramental relation to life. But it is hard to live in the authentic presence of experience and of others and of God who is wholly other than us. We prefer to live by the name, not the real presence of the other in our neighbor. Which is fine, but soon we move from living in sacramental relation to the other via naming, which is too demanding, to living in the “name of the name.” And that easily slips into living by “systems of names” that become typologies and ideologies, which can breed suspicion. I try to preserve the ‘real presence’ of ourselves, our neighbors, and God.
Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.
Wayne Roosa’s website
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