Paintings From a ‘Suitcase’ Themes of the Transient State in Recent Paintings by Andrei Roiter
Paintings of the Russian-born artist, Andrei Roiter, who presently divides his time living in Amsterdam and New York, illustrate his transient experience influenced by the prism of his ever shifting artistic identity. Roiter depicts the dilapidation and provisional structures of shacks, barns, and barracks from his past during Socialist Russia and enriches this imagery with motifs of his nomadic life-style. He skillfully interweaves romantic transient experience while paying homage to aesthetics of decay by picturing common architecture from the city fringes. Moreover, he utilizes found objects and building materials such as wood, masonite, cardboard, and fabric. His economy of means and formal rendering of objects in space evoke a bitter-sweet reflection on the fleeting character of life.
These themes were further explored in his recent exhibition, Inscapes, held at Kunsthalle, Recklinghausen in 2004, where Roiter created tranquil spaces of contemplation for his work.5 By painting walls in his favorite color of “library green” and “deep-forest green” Roiter was able to tune the strings of his audience in harmony with his subtle and self-reflective pieces. The overall atmosphere of calmness, conveyed through Roiter’s favorite color was therapeutically proven to have soothing effects. This hue became a signature color for Roiter as well as a common joke among friends.Andrei Roiter, Inscapes, Kunsthalle Recklinghousen, Holland, 2004.
The title of this exhibition, Inscapes, alludes to Surrealist Roberto Matta’s poetic definition of “inscape” – the quality of one’s soul, inner being and consciousness.Andrei Roiter, in conversation with writer, January 14th 2006, New York, NY. This poetic statement associates the landscape of nature with the escape or withdrawal into one’s internal thoughts. Indeed, the references between natural topography and the human inner-being have long been professed; for example, the circulation of blood about the human body was associated with the flow of water about the earth, will power was compared to the hardness of a rock, and the high mountain slopes were imagined as a border between the physical and the spiritual universe. Furthermore, there is the metaphor of the “black sun” which blinds one in a similar way that object loss is transformed into ego loss and blinds via laborious self-morning; this results in an escape to a realm of melancholy.Anna Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, Yale University Press, 2001, 132.
The escape into a different realm is suggested in Roiter’s paintings that draw in one’s attention through the juxtaposition of dream-like stillness and transient qualities. Roiter’s inner being is also depicted, which he reflects upon while he searches for his subjects to paint. He often alludes to past memories and paints reflections and allusive associations of events utilizing a pallet of blues, earthy greens, sienna, sepia and beige. The theme of time as a relentless flow becomes the defining moment for Roiter’s subject matter by re-representing events which happened in the past for a present audience and confirming Roiter’s awareness of transitory histories and lives.
The time-suspension effect is exemplified in Roiter’s watercolors, which shows dysfunctional and inverted objects of cubic shapes. Like key to dreams, these illustrations do not offer any explanation of a dream yet present further labyrinths.Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. (New York: Columbia University Press), 1989. Roiter utilizes the interesting compositional devise of centering single objects on a separate piece of paper to effectively stress the phenomenological validity of the object and by extension, constitute the “thing-in-itself”. These “things,” however, lack a direct reference with objects represented in his paintings, which one may conventionally attempt to look for if the watercolors are considered to be preliminary drawings.
Roiter’s objects are collected and comprised from various photographs taken during different times. Thus, the temporal and factual fragments of previous imagery overlap each other when painted on canvas to constitute a collective image that transcends reality and becomes a signifier of it at the same time. The initial contemporaneity which impartin Roiter’s works is tinted by melancholic time leaps and fragmentation.
In this case, the object depicted becomes the symbol for other objects. Consequently, its meaning is introverted. An interesting reference was suggested by art critic Klaus Ottmann, who links Roiter’s objects with Wittgenstein’s concept of the language learning method of pointing and naming. This can be viewed in the `signifying’ quality of Roiter’s objects.“Key to Dreams” is a title of series of Magritte paintings, one of which was used on a cover of book by John Burger “Ways of Seeing” (1972). Ottoman’s observation also points in the direction of the extensively analyzed linguistic connection of Russian art during the 1970s and 1980s with the exploration of semiotics. Additionally, humble execution of watercolor and of drawing, unlike any other medium, allows forms to be open-ended and leaves perception free without any need for a definitive and categorical description. Likewise, the watercolor medium makes it possible to capture the rapid transitions of the artist’s sensibility and the fleeting expression of the object depicted.
The enigmatic qualities of objects, depicted in watercolors with shadows and delicate shading, imply an existence of latent meaning or the “second soul.” These qualities discern the elusive and unpredictable significance beneath the apparent vision of the mundane. In addition, their meaning shifts constantly in a deliberate state of transience conditioned by context and the audience’s perception, thus revealing or concealing the wider connections with other objects.
What is more, the transience derives not only from his shadow or shading, but also from the very little space and time its execution requires. Roiter explains that he paints fast in merely one “go” and considers work unsuccessful if it requires secondary corrections. On the contrary, conceiving work and finding an apt image, sometimes involves months or even years of searching and imagining.Ibid.
Roiter finds his painting’s subject in the abundant photographs he takes everywhere. He generates an image of his next painting from several photos. His photographs are utilized as preliminary drawings or sketch albums and then mapped on canvas with the help of a projector.Klaus Ottmann The Strange Life of Andrei Roiter’s Objects, in Andrei Roiter. Inscapes, Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, 2004. Because Roiter uses several photos at a time, this process is described as image compression, similar to Sigmund Freud’s concept of dream work and condensation. Freud describes initial mental imagining through the process of object displacement. Likewise, condensation is the process of superimposing previously seen images onto each other.Andrei Roiter, in conversation with writer, January 14th 2006, New York, NY. According to this theory, the human brain utilizes the condensation process in the development of a dream, distilling and shifting fragments of experiences to produce a different kind of dream that comes from non-linear classification.
Roiter confirms his aim to capture the very moment of intuitive discovery, which happens somewhere between human consciousness and unconsciousness. When the flash of insight transpires, when the object discontinues being an everyday item and becomes a symbol of aesthetic enquiry, Roiter takes up his brushes. He exposes objects from the trivial meaning that obscures their essential forms and relations to other objects. Metaphorically speaking, Roiter removes the dust from these objects with soft brush, and like a romantic archeologist, re-establishes intimate connection and brings forward that which was left unnoticed. In this way he is able to comprehend the invisible.Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 3rd Edition, trans. by A.A. Brill, New York: Macmillan, 1911.
Roiter uses the photography’s condensed imagery for his paintings, and, bearing in mind that photography is conventionally considered to be the “art of fixing a shadow,” it can be suggested that what Roiter paints is already a shadow of something which took place in the past.Lyle Rexer, Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde. The New Wave in Old Process, New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 2002. By copying the temporary quality of the shadow he creates a world twice distant from his immediate reality.
Roiter seeks to stabilize the connection formed with the past and the cultural conditioning that constitute the framework for the re-interpretation of the present. He resists the fragmentation of memory, which inevitably takes place while he lives and works in exile. In many ways his physical and emotional path alienates him from the historical precedence of many Russian cultural practitioners. For many of them, the fragmentation of memory was a way to survive and continue working creatively. It can be said that cultural emigration became a historical Russian phenomena, also viewed in many other histories as an effect of monarchy and dictatorship. These histories are composed from memories of people, which are always ephemeral, contingent, specula, and therefore unable to be documented.
In addition, memory is always a living realm which constantly works to conjoin its fragments. For example, in order to remember, one must also be able to forget. These memories are kept in motion or held aloft within the community. In this circumstance, Henri Bergson envisions memory as something alike “a bound volume in the library of unconscious, in which vivid images of past events would lie like so many pages sewn into signatures.”Henri Bergson Matter and Memory. Trans. W.S.Palmer and N.M. Paul, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990. And while Roiter recollects his memories and makes them visible he investigates the binary-fluidity of attachment and mobility.
Reasserting his cultural attachments, Roiter is inspired by his childhood memories in his “Monument to my Childhood”. This structure, which is suspended from the gallery ceiling, refers perhaps to Roiter’s state of alternation between different geographical localities. The construction suggests an enclosed bird nest build from scrapes of carton, wood and recycled canvases. Roiter inscribes the surface with consecutive texts in Russian and English. Furthermore, the title of this installation and its formal execution references Ilya Kabakov’s “Monument to the Lost Civilization” and also numerable monuments of the Soviet empire. Kabakov’s work is placed on the surface of his structure. Thus, Roiter is intelligently open to his stylistic affinities as he plays homage to his fellow artist and friend. What’s more, Roiter inscribes “pomme de terre,” which references the potato, as a dull ingredient of the Russian cuisine and by enlarge a metaphor of poverty.
These texts reflect the state of Roiter’s artistic being as well as his vagrant life-style. The themes are: “my potato mind,” “notes about unplanned escape to the part”, “my lazy self,” “watercolors, “my America,” “pomme de terre,” and the means to transmit an artist’s emotions to the audience through the surface of a structure. Surface metaphorically could be seen as the body’s skin, which separates the fragile inside and outside, yet also exposes intimacy to the world. This exposure and simultaneously cancellation of self is reinforced by the fact that inside, Roiter places chair and lamp in order to re-create a sanctuary and uninterrupted “in-scape” space where he can escape. By building a shelter from the cruelties of the world, so to speak, Roiter is able to pilgrimage into his childhood; he also re-excavates and simultaneously mourns his childhood, confirming in some sense words by John Seinbeck “How will we know it’s us without our past?”John Seinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, quoted in Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local, New York: New Press, 1997. p.6.
Although the artist protects himself from the hostile outside, he also allows himself to communicate and watch the external through cuts left in the walls of this structure. Roiter explains that the structure becomes a place where, “… I can see at every hour who [is] coming to visit me, where everything that is suspended from the ceilings and the walls holds on as of by enchantment, where… who I am will appear to me, sooner or later, engraved on a diamond.”Andre Breton, Nadja, Paris: Gallimard, 1964, 18.
This poetic citation of surrealist Andre Breton reveals the fact that through artwork this artist realizes and redefines himself continually, not only asking who I am, but also where I am, reflecting his actual geographic space or rather place-lessness. Roiter considers his geographical and cultural place-lessness and answers these questions by building and painting shelters, fulfilling his wish of having a home, a space of leap and in-scape into familiar environment. He also asserts his place in the community of his fellow artists, many of whom likewise left their initial homes in hopes for something better and new.
The geography of Roiter’s travel may be poetically associated with the itinerary of his identity shifts, which, while being imbedded in a past, harnesses his future. Moreover, the geographical representation varies significantly on every new experience of Roiter’s visits. Furthermore his inner- landscape deposits and condenses memories of many places, people, feelings he once experienced.
Conversely, these memories and cognitive experiences constitute Roiter’s identity. By extension, his subjectivity asserts itself though its fragmentation, and, while finding himself situated between realities, places, and relationships Roiter mixes his past and present on one canvas and refuses to be trapped in the predictable, logical, and mundane. His imagery presents a seemingly unassuming vision of what becomes the revelation of everything that he lived through before. The artist’s motto can be defined as “please don’t help me…to be you.” He thus reinforces his choices and his denials, which constitutes his individuality as a perpetual traveler.
As a result, outwardly ordinary, six worn out and coarse suitcases filled with soil and coal constitute Roiter’s Workersongs presented in 1990. This installation refers to the first generation of migrant coal workers in Ruhr, where Roiter was living at that time. The artist reflects on his recent arrival to this German land and draws parallels between a community of hard working people and his artistic profession. 15 By utilizing his favorite suitcase motif Roiter advocates the concept of equality among every émigré who settles on new territory. The translocation experience offers fair opportunities to the settler who undertakes a leap from a past geographical and cultural location to a new place and leaves behind the known and familiar in order to gain the new life, regardless of his or her previous social position.
Following Roiter’s recurrent representation of the suitcase as the epitome of the transitional state, the metaphorical question, how much can one carry in a suitcase when coming to new country, can be asked. Social values, intellectual concerns, cultural preferences and associations, all constitute identity and will be taken to a new country. These facets will be shaped and adjusted, some lost and forgotten, and a new self will emerge.
Seemingly, Roiter was able to bring with him more than the others. He confesses to often taking his paintings in a suitcase while traveling to another place. Therefore his artworks became fictitiously a “suitcase art.” It is interesting that this term was used to describe Russian non-conformist art which was often transported form Russia to mostly America in suitcases by diplomats and foreign-officials furing1970s and 80s.This statement gave title to Roiter’s exhibition in 1995 in Anders Tornberg Gallery, Sweden. However, for what ever reasons, the statement was changed to the opposite meaning by shortening it to “Help Me to Be You”. Also, the fact that paintings had been carried in this peculiar way conveys the object-like character of an art work, which announces its materiality and inasmuch denounces its collectable ability and lasting qualities.
Literally, in an affirmation of translocation and the pressure of working in different studios, Roiter paints small size canvases and builds small wooden models of found wood scraps sized approximately 100 cm by 60 cm. This scale further emphasizes the transient character of his art works. Miniature, and I would argue that this would be relevant for small scale art works as well, conventionally presents limited space and therefore offers a compressed vision of the world. As a result, the connection of the miniature’s subject matter and the outside world is altered and displaced; the natural vibrancy, immediacy and vital nature of the real world is omitted. As Bachelard explains, “All small things must [have] evolved slowly, and certainly a long period of leisure, in a quiet room, was needed to miniaturize the world. Also one must love space […] to enclose an entire spectacle in a molecule of drawing.”Exhibition Catalogue Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, Holland, 2004.
Not surprisingly then, the small scale art work becomes a visual strategy for Roiter to depict the concept of drift, a movement with no predetermined direction, no point of departure or arrival. These works represent his traveling imagery, which often resembles disconnection with Soviet Russia. It is what, in metaphor, Roiter took with him in a suitcase when he left for Amsterdam in 1990 with the intention to come back to Moscow within three month. He came back in six years and was always encouraged to stay through the generosity of fellow artists and critics.
To accentuate the feel of evanescence some paintings are developed with a rather flatted and stylized space, accentuated by inscribed text. His texts are often humorous, personal, or sometimes proverbial, manifesting a worldly truth. They take on ambivalent character. Some texts are illustrative explanations to the image. Frequently however the textual statements are not related to the image and refer to events which are left unframed and obscure the context. By serving both descriptive and ambiguous purposes Roiter’s inscriptions introduce another layer of significance into the content, which imply personal artistic associations.
It is heard Roiter saying, “Don’t help me to be… you,” “artist at work: normal me,” “good made atheists, the devil made tourists,” and “why do I feel you are looking at me.” These statements reveal the internal mechanism of context and content relations. They provide context and, have a painting’s qualities, and supplement the content of an image.Gaston Bachelard, The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, Beacon Press; Boston, 1967, 158. Besides, these quotes amplify precarious visions of the artist’s imagery, by emphasizing that his subjectivity has been referenced and private contradictions have been portrayed. His subtle sense of humor is utilized to cover the vulnerable and personal self from a viewer’s critique.
While Roiter offers a self-reflective vision of his wide travel and dislocation, his imagery is divorced from direct social critique or emphasis on cultural differences. Instead, Roiter notes the similarities between the places where he has lived. He persistently does this in order to transcend spatial and temporal rupture between his localities. In other words, by focusing on resemblance and disregarding difference, Roiter creates his own version of reality, or rather fantasy, which he leaps into. And if fantasy is the means by which he places himself “out of the world” or at “the end of the world,” it has also become a means for adaptation to his world, a method to survive in a realm of relentless mobility.
What could be more familiar than railways, which look alike all over the world; Paris, London, New York, and Bombay train junctions are merely identical symbols of modernity, the industrial revolution, and global commuting. Roiter often paints the railway landscape with shacks that have been built alongside the tracks and constitute an inseparable feature of the railway. This “vernacular architecture of a provisional” – dwellings, which people build utilizing found objects such as plywood, recycled cardboard, masonite, and glass can be experienced in almost any part of the world. Railways attract people due to the historical segregation of settlers around means of communication and also because railways take on an ambivalent role between city and country, civilization and nature; they grant communication and supplies. Initially build as temporary shelters for gardening tools or alternative houses for the marginalized, these provisional designs situated around roads and tracks often survived through many years.
Within the economics of Western Europe, these abodes were constructed to pursue a gardening hobby. In Russia and Eastern Europe, these were used as agricultural sites for farming; a necessity for periods of food shortage. Particularly in urban areas, where spare land was occupied by industries, farming barns appeared in plentitude on the outskirts of major cities due to much manifesting desire by the communist party union of “workers and farmers.” Regardless of geographical and social context, these shacks bear associations with uselessness, dispatch, and transient experience. They have thus been chosen by Roiter as a referent for location-sameness to balance relentless newness.
The iconography of the shacks can also be viewed in the formal treatment of the depicted space. For example, the object floats and is overshadowed by the expanded ground which intensifies the figure. This ground relationship insists on the status of transitory objects. Contrasting tones of similar earthy colors strengthen the dramatic effects of these seemingly trivial structures. Because of the enclosed, un-communicative, and self-referential nature, they resemble bunkers of ambiguous purpose.
Roiter accentuates the angularity of dwellings which seem to be shut forever with windows nailed to confirm, “No more windows, these useless eyes. Why look outside?”Le Corbusier, Louis Sutter. L’inconnu de la soixantaine, Minotaure 9, Paris, October 1936, 62. But what is inside of these sheds? Roiter comes back to the representation of the enclosed shack structure again and again with variation in size, medium, and color. Sometime it takes the form of a sculpture attached to the wall; sometimes of a found and painted-over old suitcase placed on a floor; and more often he simply paints the shed, the silhouette of a dilapidated farmer’s barn, or a box.
Roiter’s ambivalent imagery translates the unspeakable into the communicable. Byarticulating associations and memories, it bridges the gap of two realms: past and present. The link between these illusive spaces can be attained through the leap, which Kierkegaard described as a “movement in place”. He expands, “To become is a movement from the spot, but to become oneself is a movement in place.” Kierkegaard is referring to the vectorial character of the leap and by extension, its spatial relation.Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, quoted in `The Genius Decision. The Extraordinary and Postmodern Condition”, Klaus Ottmann, Dissertation Thesis. Open University, 2002, 169. Roiter himself made a physical leap into the living environment of other countries which reflected in his imaginative leaps into the world of familiar sites and shabby humble objects. The triviality of these transcends geographic borders and becomes a signifier for the mundane and average, as well as the poor and marginalized.
In this context, Roiter positions himself between three major cultural centers: Russia, Western Europe and America. The inevitable reflection on these cross-cultural phenomena through his art-practices reflects his choices of subject matter, form modulation, and the founded objects he utilizes for his installations. Roiter also embraces his new self shaped by the exposure to different cultures and people. It is this self that is heard through his texts and titles and which announces a new critical form of consciousness. Dialectic between cultural fragmentation and critical reaffirmation of the past is manifested through his visual language. Thus, he places images of travel-marginalia, childhood, and ethnographic references through a prism of personal subjectivity that ultimately contributes to cross-cultural dialogue.
In this framework, the title of his exhibition “Inscape” can also be read as the leap which Roiter takes into the world of fantasy, transient day-dream, and self-reflection Being there he is “no longer earthbound.” He could also fairly add, “I shall never return” before boarding yet another plane.Peter Semolic, From: Vprasahja o poti, Studenska zalozba, Ljubljana, 2001, trans. Ana Jelnikar, 2004.