“Something strange is creeping across me.” The first line of John Ashbery’s poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” came to mind while I was scrutinizing the modestly scaled, seemingly benign works included in Bloomfield, Jessica Rohrer’s latest exhibition of paintings and works on paper at PPOW (May 28–June 27, 2015). In the poem, Daffy Duck calls his creator, presumably the poet John Ashbery, “That mean old cartoonist … ” In Rohrer’s punctiliously painted world, there are no figures that might complain about the way their architect has treated them. In fact, on first glance, everything in this uninhabited domain seems chillingly perfect.
Imagine a suburban world where everything is tidy and antiseptic, where order has been restored and nothing is out of place. Imagine a world where signs of entropy have been banished, leaving in their place precise, detailed views of such subjects as the inside shelf of a refrigerator door, shelves of footwear, a shiny red lawnmower beside a fence, and a sun-dappled suburban street on which every lawn is perfect, and all the cars look as if they have just been washed.
It is Rohrer’s desire for perfection that I find beguiling and frightening. Everything seems to have been staged by the artist, a feeling that is reinforced by her thorough depictions of controlled environments, such as toy houses made of Legos or molded plastic. It is as if the artist wants to stop time, to achieve a kind of stillness that borders on claustrophobic silence. However, it was when I began examining the gouaches of houseplants, many of which the artist depicts in their transportable containers, ready to be planted in the yard, that I noticed the bug-eaten leaves and other signs of decay and inevitability.
Rohrer’s fastidious depictions of sunny suburban streets seemed to molt before my eyes, swiftly transforming from the idyllic to the horrifying with nary a leaf changing place or color. Here is where the artist’s works elevate themselves onto another level of perception. For all of her ability to achieve a flawless pictorial world, where it is apparent that each leaf of grass is perfect and all the backyards are neat, the artist knows that she can make this ideal world but she cannot inhabit it. But isn’t that one reason why many people moved to the suburbs in the first place? Didn’t they believe they could find some measure of perfection there? Didn’t they believe they could create the perfect circumstances in which to grow up and grow old? Didn’t they yearn for a world from which thoughtlessness was banished?
By becoming a witness to this deep-seated desire for control and perfection, Rohrer evokes the emptiness that seeps into many lives, no matter how outwardly content they might initially appear. The other thing she focuses on is the desire for acceptable accumulation – from spices to shoes to games to membership in a book club. We need to fit it and be part of a larger, collective community that reads certain books and is knowledgeable about food and the other finer things of life. In addition to suburban views, she indexes collections of things, such as toiletries, shoes and crafts supplies, that we think enhance our life, and perhaps they do. And yet, as Henry David Thoreau observed in a letter: “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
While various critics have linked Rohrer to the Precisionists, particularly Charles Sheeler, I think the comparison overlooks a very real and basic difference. In his depiction of skyscrapers and the new modernist architecture, Sheeler inched towards abstraction. Rohrer, however, focuses on details; nothing seems to escape her attention, not even the numbers on the license plates of the parked cars. This attention to detail belies a desire to understand the mechanics of looking; what do we actually see? And what does seeing what we do mean?
In Rohrer’s paintings, the symmetry of the views, the tight cropping, the spatial divisions of the plane and a growing interest in reflections undermine the solidity of the views. In “Front Door” (2013), which is a mere 15 x 12 inches, the full-length glass pane of the outer front door reflects what is across the street. The viewer has to untangle the various perceptual layers the artist has compressed together.
In “Front Yard” (2013), Rohrer depicts a slightly elevated view of a quiet suburban street lined with one-family houses. The elevated view suggests that we are standing inside our doorway, looking out, surveying our domain. And what we see are mirror images. Moreover, the street spanning the lower part of the painting is perpendicularly intersected by our neighbor’s driveway, with a car parked at the far end. Everywhere we look, parked cars, – vehicles that would enable anyone to escape this life and supposedly start a new one – hem us in.
The longer I looked at Rohrer’s paintings, the more I found something stifling about the views. There is no relief in sight, not even in the backyard swimming pool or the table with four chairs by the outdoor grill. It is as if what is missing from all these scenes – and I believe Rohrer is getting at this – is life itself. Am I reading too much into these works? I would say yes and no. Rohrer’s painting invites speculation. What is it that we want from life? And why? In Rohrer’s case, I would say it is to make paintings that raise questions, rather than provide solutions. I cited Thoreau earlier because what I think both Rohrer and the New England transcendentalist share is their commitment to see everything through a moral lens, which is not the same as moralizing.
Bloomfield continues at PPOW Gallery (535 W 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 27.