Craig Roper and Cameron Shaw: Two Guys from Lincoln

At the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Craig Roper and Cameron Shaw were raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the late fifties and early sixties. If their work has anything in common, it is certainly not its tone (where Roper is often witty, Shaw is generally somber) but an interest in the past: troubled nostalgia for a supposedly "simpler" American life in Roper's case, and obsession with the relationship between the authoritarian character structure of "men of affairs" and the two world wars in Shaw's.

Whereas Shaw leaves it to the viewer to extrapolate contemporary relevance, Roper's work is not entirely rooted in the past. Some of it takes on a contemporary dada cast. Carrion is a stack of "paintings" wrapped in black garbage-bag plastic and hung from the wall, ready to be carted away by a "collector." But does the collector really know what's in there, or has he just bought a "lot" of paintings? Five Bundles Containing Lewd and Compromising Photos of Myself is a shelf of five similar black-plastic-wrapped bundles meant to recall Robert Mapplethorpe's notorious photographs. But by blacking out its own content to activate curiosity, the work forces viewers to wonder just what the artist (and by extension, viewers themselves) consider "lewd." The answer, of course, is that what would make one person uncomfortable might easily seem reasonable to another.

Cheap Art, Cheap Bourbon seems to turn disdain for difficult art against itself by placing two pints of bourbon and two shot glasses on a shelf in front of two bad photographs--of a duck print and a jackalope. Those who judge all art by the duck, the piece seems to suggest, are likely to consider anything more complex or abstract a "jackalope"--the absurd mythical beast (a jack rabbit with antlers) that hunters send a naif out to catch as a practical joke.

But Roper's more interesting work may be a more subtle meditation on the relationship between America's rural past and its present industrial culture. Nine Industrial Bundles, placed on a two-tiered black shelf made of a crate, represents a kind of inexorable march of industrial expansion from power stations to power lines and oil plants to loading docks. Each side of a bundle has the same photo. The five bundles on top are angled in one direction, the four on the bottom in the other. In other words, we get industry coming and going and on all sides. Cows places dirty bundles of cow photos in an iron tool box filled with dirt to contrast agricultural culture with the industrial culture that seems to have consumed and contained it. And Six Pack-Water stacks six innocent-looking "landscape" photos of a perfectly straight irrigation canal (photographed from mid-stream so that the water vanishes on the horizon) on paint stretchers. But the allusion to six packs calls one's attention to the process of brewing beer and thus to the possibility of beer being made from ditch water filled with chemical runoff. The apparent "nature" photo, in other words, isn't as innocent as it appears.

Nevertheless, Roper can't resist a contemporary joke, and How to Catch a Nightcrawler is one of his funniest pieces. It mounts a diagram showing ways to hook a worm with a patch of pubic-hair-like felt at its top and a long felt silhouette of an enormous penis dangling from its bottom. The joke about "dangling one's worm" to "make a catch," clearly made at the expense of certain kinds of men (just flip the TV dial to "Studs"), gets turned painfully and humorously back on itself.

If Roper makes fun of male stereotypes, Shaw is more serious, exploring the crippling an socially dangerous repressions of the "successful" authoritarian male. In his six-paneled Untitled Self-Portrait at 34, 35, 36 Years, three identical dark, black and white photos in dark frames of Shaw's stern banker grandfather are interspersed with three similarly framed black and white photos of herringbone business-suit fabric, suggesting utter stasis (not one thing has changed in those three years). Any hint of the erratic or spontaneous has been expunged from the life that Shaw's successful grandfather felt he had to live. Corbel #7 expands on the idea. A freestanding body-sized box with the same herringbone pattern on the outside, its open top at neck level reveals an inside covered with Katzenjammer Kids comics, as if we were looking inside a decapitated body at what has to be repressed in order to maintain the rigors of outward conservatism.

Untitled Box with Narragansett Times and Wool Roll is a box approximately the size of a man's chest that hangs on the wall at just about chest height. The herringbone pattern of its iron-like frame suggests a conservative suit jacket, and the late nineteen-century newspaper article displayed on its front like a shirt beneath the jacket features a celebratory article about the phenomenal "industry" of a master mechanic and inventor. The elements seem to work together to suggest a tale of hard work and emotional sacrifice of an "iron man" serving technological "progress."

Shaw also explores the relationship between this kind of "character armor" and the two world wars. Untitled Column Box with New York Times and Blank Newspapers is a wall-mounted, human-sized box covered with New York Times war news on its front. It sports three blank newspapers where a head should be (with box flaps standing up like stiff collars around them) as if it were another portrait of the kind of "iron man" who makes the decisions that help cause major wars (what the press covers comes out of the "printing press" of the political iron man's head). Untitled Column Box with Newsprint looks much like a horizontal coffin, open where the head might be to reveal a pre-World War I newspaper photograph of King Alonso XIII and company reviewing an array of dead rabbits they have killed for sport and another photograph of a military officer reviewing ranks of soldiers at parade rest--men ready for the decisions of the politically powerful who will send them off to slaughter.

All of this is pretty dismal stuff. Yet lest we think that his is a complete psychohistorical determinist, Shaw does create the counterexample of a chest-box with a cartoon-page shirt and three wax melon shapes for a head, as if the severity of the "man of iron" had been meliorated by the breakthrough of the sociability (three heads?) of the child he has had to repress.

I can't quite buy the "postmodern" view that either artist is questioning the "validity" of history as anything but "myth." In once sense, of course, history is the stories we tell about the past in order to shore up or change current social practice. But it is also the past stories that have justified past social practice that helped give rise to the current state of affairs. To manage the first proposition, we have to take seriously and explore the second. Roper's concern about the relationship of an industrial culture to its agricultural past (and hence to its environmental present and future) is genuine. And Shaw must believe that men like his boxes are still too much at the helm; otherwise, why point out their social history? Neither artist seems willing to give in to the postmodernist freeform collage of the past that actually obscures it. And that is refreshing.

Peter Kosenko, published in Artpapers (November-December 1993), pp. 53-54. 

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