Subconscious Landscapes: Rocky Schenck’s The Recurring Dream

Nightmares cover the walls of Texas State’s Wittliff Collections as Rocky Schenck’s latest collection of photographs The Recurring Dream reflect the artist’s haunting inspiration. This collection is very large, made up of over one hundred images. Schenck says his photographs are “found realities” or natural scenes that he captures within his lens. He later brings these realities to life by self-tinting each with oil and therefore transforming them into manufactured realities of his own subconscious. In this collection of images, Schenck explores his own experience with a recurring dream that haunted his childhood and works to visualize that trauma through images of the real world. While not sharing any details of the dream that inspired him, it is evident that this dream has tormented Schenck and caused him to address his childhood trauma with this work in an effort to overcome it.
     The Recurring Dream fills five large rooms, every image evenly spaced and similar in size. The entire collection is made up of a small selection of colors, most of them feel dark, aged, and otherworldly. Vibrant emerald green trees sit atop dark backdrops, often with a glowing golden sky peeking through the trees and vines. Some photographs contain aliens, ghosts, angels, and skeletons. Rooms seem to blend together. There is no defined order to view the images. Some viewers walk clockwise while others walk counter clockwise. I accidentally walked past some images two or three times. It was like walking through Schenck’s mind while he experienced this recurring dream; everything feels half real, almost real enough to believe. The entire exhibition suggests the feeling of being in a dream; each image has just enough clarity to believe as reality, but a soft haze, fading edges, and fantastical repetition emphasize the recurring nature of this subconscious exploration reminiscent of an almost-forgotten memory. This struggle to differentiate reality from fantasy is shared by Schenck while he works to confront this trauma by physically recreating it as well as the viewer while investigating Schenck’s work.
My eyes were caught by a landscape on the back wall named Prosenium, it glows eerily. Schenck’s beautiful use of otherworldly colors and soft haze suggest a connection with dreams and fantasy. Adding these colors to the black and white image in such an intimate way is Schenck’s attempt to pull his subconscious out of him and put it into the photograph. The connection between Schenck and this image is intensely apparent. This photo is taken from within the woods. The natural imagery feels tangible and pulls me into a false sense of reality that I can only recognize as manufactured when I actively perceive the colors and am made aware of the fantastical nature of the image. The sky is a hazy greenish yellow and the almost-grey clouds, a blur. The scene is framed with gigantic old trees, overgrown with vines. A lone figure walks past one of the trees, looking away from me with hands in pockets. This ominous figure, dressed in dark neutral tones, seems ghostly and faceless. Tree trunks and leaves glow, contrasting with the dark shadow of forest behind. The forest feels alive; I experience this scene as though I, myself, am within the trees watching this figure navigate these ominous trees. It is hard to differentiate what is real and what Schenck has manufactured, like being in a dream that you can’t tell is a dream or trying to recall a memory that is lost in your subconscious. These haunting elements come together to make Prosenium a perfect representation of The Recurring Dream by transporting me into a dream world.

There was another photo that stood out among the rest, consisting of eleven identical red-headed young women in various green dresses, in varying sizes, and all looking in different directions and existing in different planes. Her eleven forms do not obey any laws of physics or traditional rules of perspective. The repetition of this character immediately affirms the feeling of being in a dream-like manufactured reality, a feeling that is further echoed by the space in its entirety. Eleven transports me to a mystical blurred view of this red-head a dozen times at once. She appears as a physical representation of a subconscious that is lost, distraught, and contemplative at once in a dream world. The slight differences between her dresses—some lighter than others, some with ruffles, others with sequins—all bring me back to that almost-forgotten memory, a green dress that I can’t perfectly remember. The top half of the photograph is a smoky blue wall, decorated with what appears to be either a fresco or faded reliefs depicting trees and people. As difficult as it is to make out exactly what is shown, it is obvious that it is repetitive imagery, again reflecting the space and the entire collection. This background’s blurred edges make it seem to mirror the lost red-head, possibly depicting the same person or same tree eleven times from eleven angles.

     Eleven compliments Prosenium perfectly, both glow green and live in another realm. I not only saw this collection, but I experienced Schenck’s recurring dream and went on a journey through my own subconscious at the same time. This collection of images has made me reflect on my own experiences with haunting recurring dreams in a very personal way. I feel Schenck’s pain, fear, anxiety, and discomfort, but at the same time I am comforted by it. By sharing this haunting childhood experience and being able to confront it in this safe space, Schenck provides he and myself with an opportunity to overcome these personal anxieties. The book that contains the images from this collection has become a ritualistic tool for me, every time I open it, I begin a journey of self-exploration and can better understand myself. This work will continue to act as a personal reflection of one man’s childhood experience as well as a therapeutic experience into another realm for countless others that have experienced their own haunting recurring dream. (1,000)


Performance Art as Therapy

I first met Jackie Overby over the summer at Zelick’s, a local bar, where every week artists come to sell, trade, and perform their art. I bought a small piece from Overby that was relatively simple, two male figures in matching black suits, one with a red explosion for a head, the other’s blue. I followed her Instagram, thanked her for the work, and left. We didn’t see or speak to each other again until our classes paired up this semester so that my class could help her class edit their artist statements. Obviously, I wanted to work with the only artist whose work I actually owned, so I paired with Overby and her statement blew me away; she was thoughtful, intricate, wild, and a little eccentric. I gave her some tips and she was very receptive and took criticism well, a must for an artist. We meet again weeks later. I signed up to interview her in another class crossover – I knew she wouldn’t disappoint. We sat in front of (then inside) her thesis project and immediately connected.

CM: I have a ton of questions.

JO: Oh fuck yeah!

           I knew this would be fun.

CM: Can you first just give a brief overview of this project?

JO: Well this is GAIA, my thesis project. It involves me putting on a black morph suit, getting into a plastic enclosement, and using clay to physically transform myself in order to meditate and cope with some childhood trauma as well as personal anxieties.

CM: What is your inspiration for this?

JO: Oliver Desagazon is a huge inspiration for me, he puts on these live performances of where he meditates and bangs against metal to make noise with his body. I am also interested in the Butoh dance, where the shamans would roll around in and paint themselves with mud in order to descend into one’s own darkness. But they didn’t see darkness as necessarily negative, it was more like diving into one’s own subconscious.

These forms of meditation interested me because I have been dealing with my own personal anxieties and this allows me to channel those anxieties and to overcome them by descending into this dark primal place. By actually covering my eyes and transforming myself, I am able to take on this primal persona. I also wore ear plugs to help with the sensory deprivation.

I worked myself into a panic attack and each performance was different, some panic attacks more extreme than other, and it shows in the videos for sure.

CM: Can you explain your process?

JO: I did four performances total, the second one was in September or so and I took a lot of still shots of that one. I did this one first, GAIA One, and then I did the one with the still shots. Originally, I was just going to do to two but then I was talking to Tommy and he convinced me to do a third one and I felt it was appropriate because it was still going with my theme of threes, you know?

So I have the square panel in mind so I know I need a square format…ish. I pick out the gestures that I like. If I am watching, I’ll pause it and take a screen shot. If I’m like “ooo that was really cool, I liked that” or “oh look at that spit strain that’s really cool, I’ll take a screen shot and save it. Then I went through my screen shots and selected 15 or something that I liked. Then I went through those and selected the first three that were my favorites at that time and that was GAIA One and then I cut the figures and their shadows in Photoshop, just what I needed, maybe the baseboard if I wanted it because I really liked the corners. I would just put multiple corners and it was a cool way to play with the space. I would arrange them in Photoshop and when I was done, I would project them and then do the charcoal drawing and I fix what I need to and then I do a wash of red. It’s like its undercoat and you can see it in some parts, little bits of red.

And while we’re here, I actually forgot last minute….to take this tape off *chuckles* I don’t think anybody even noticed.

            Overby strips GAIA One of its tape and the interview continues.

But yeah okay, so I had picked out my colors, I wanted a very limited palette. There’s this color “Nickel titanite” that’s really cool. I used a lot of that, green, gold, and this castle earth I really like; it’s like a purple brown.

I mix that palette and I just set those paints aside because I knew I wanted to stick in the same family of colors. Whenever I was done with GAIA One, I began GAIA Two. I developed the composition wanting it to be more zoomed in. I was like “okay so this one is kind of square and steady, now let’s mix stuff up. This one will be a little more crooked and topsy turvy.” I really loved the shadows. I used really strong lighting, I got the silver clamp lights and used halogen bulbs. You get really beautiful shadows and nice photos. I repeated the Photoshop process from the first one and then I was playing around with painting a little bit thicker in the face area to emphasize it.

CM: You have three figures in each painting, are they from the same performances?

JO: All of them are from the second performance. That one had the best lighting and the best shots for painting. The other ones were more for the performance and the videos. The third one was too dark for me and it was from above me.

The fourth one was one at my eye level and I’m thinking about painting from that one later on.

CM: Why did you switch to this type of performance and angle?

JO: I had been talking to my boyfriend about what the show needed and we talked about a bust shot and a head on angle. Also, during my second performance, which I did in the sculpture room, someone mentioned that they were glad that I was behind the plastic because they wanted a barrier between us, otherwise it would have been too scary. So I wanted to push that a little bit.

So on the last performance, I set up a two foot by two foot square of plastic in the stairwell.

CM: Here on campus?

JO: Yeah on the fourth floor of the art building. If you saw a lot of dust on the ground, it was me.

Then I cut a little square out of the plastic in front of me, kind of like a TV screen size. It was kind of like “I can get out if I need to, I can get out and reach you”.

I liked that you could focus on the face more.

CM: You get that great shot of the clay-spit drip from your chin.

JO: Dude the spit-clay was my favorite! It got so much in my mouth, it was so gross.

CM: Do you consider yourself a photographer, painter, performance artist, all of the above?

JO: I think all of the above. I don’t want to insult photographers, I’ve never taken a photography class, but my mom’s boyfriend was a photographer and I used to have this old old camera, like with crank film and exchangeable lenses. So I like photography a lot, I like angles, perspective, light. I feel like it all kind of goes hand in hand.

CM: Did you find it difficult to use these mediums together?

JO: Actually no, when I first had the idea, I just thought of this big screen and this big painting and that’s what I wanted. I wanted the conversation between the two mediums. I think that was a pretty vital part of it for me, having it explained and portrayed in different ways.

CM: Why did you feel the need to include the drop cloth?

JO: Well, I really wanted there to be something else toward the end of the project and this was the same drop cloth that I used for every performance. It’s in the paintings, it’s in the videos, I really enjoyed painting it too. I used it like a prop in some of the performances. In some, it is a cape or a blanket and other times, I am holding it like a baby. I felt like it needed to be in here, it is a character in the work. I twisted it, threw it up there, and the past few days I have been going back to it and twisting with it more and more and adding more clay to it.

CM: So the cloth is from the videos, is the plastic?

JO: No this is new plastic, I got six sheets of ten feet by twenty feet and hung it from this steel rod that I bent so that it would have a hook in the middle. Then I draped it over and moved it around as I needed to down here.

CM: Was the visual potential of the plastic floor something you were interested in?

JO: Definitely! When I first set it up, I made it all billowy but then people were tripping on it, then I was tripping on it. I had to change it because I just kept thinking about if someone fell into the TV and knocked it over. I have to return that next week! So I knew I had to do something and I really liked the wrinkles. I pinched and twisted where I needed to and put little bits of tape down.

My friend asked if I was going to put pillows under the plastic in front of the TV and I was like “No, but I am now!!” and I ran and got some pillows and put them underneath the plastic.

CM: Are people welcome to walk through the plastic and sit on the plastic?

JO: Yes, definitely! And I actually kind of liked that the plastic was tripping people up, it kind of went with the project and my own physical restrictions inside the plastic. During the performances, I kept getting stuck to it.

We sat down on the pillows, put on the headphones, and gave the video a watch.

CM: It sounds like the sound overlaps at the end, is that intentional?

JO: Yeah I would layer the audio tracks and create the transitions, with them overlapping more and more as the video goes on. I really liked the laugh at the end of the video, I knew I wanted it to end with that playing over the other audio.

CM: Would you do anything differently if you were exhibiting alone?

JO: If I was by myself, then I would probably do the actual performance here in the gallery space and have the paintings in the background.

We continued to talk for another hour, getting into the fine details of her thesis project, past projects, and dreams for the future. Jackie Overby is definitely an artist to keep your eyes on as she further experiments with performance and video art. Overby hopes to attend graduate school to continue her education and eventually live as a full-time working artist.

Is it significant? Will it sell?

Last week we discussed the debated existence of a crisis within the art world, or rather the art criticism world. We read JJ Charlesworth’s article that claimed that the crisis in art criticism lies in the lack of negative criticism in recent years. He believes that the latest generation of art critics have a deep rooted fear of conflict and therefore are apprehensive to write truly critical reviews that discuss the cultural and historical significance of the work.

For me, Charlesworth’s argument was affirmed after reading some of Christina Rees’ work on Glasstire. She made some claims that were very similar to Charlesworth’s but ties them into a local context by writing about art criticism within Texas and its own problems.

Together, these readings tell me that there is a void in the art criticism world. A void that yearns to be filled by strong critical art writing that finds the cultural or historical significance within a work, or can be bold enough to say that there is nothing significant about that work.

We also discussed arts relationship to commerce after hearing Debra Barrera and Jonathan Hopson speak about their personal experiences within the art world and how to navigate the financial side of art. With no experience in that realm, I was incredibly interested to hear about that struggle and how artists survive financially and practice their art independently. I was left wondering if art critics/curators are in the same boat as Debra and Jonathan, working a normal job during the day in order to practice art and curate exhibits with creative freedom with no dependence on the financial success of each work.



3 Ideas

  1. Be clear but not simplistic.
  2. Be complex without jargon.
  3. Mirror the tone of the exhibit.

These three ideas have been dancing around in my mind since last week’s discussion on voice and tone. At first thought, they seem to be simple ideas, but they soon become quite complicated. My questions are endless:

How simplistic should I be for different audiences?

How complex can I be within my word limit?

Can I use some jargon? What is off limits? Is jargon sometimes necessary?

Gilda Williams attempts to answer a lot of these questions by comparing multiple writings on the same artist but each in a different context. Before our class discussion, I felt like Williams laid everything out there and basically gave me a how-to on voice, but after our discussion raised more and more questions and left me with three complicated ideas, I have concluded that the only way to fully grasp voice and tone is to immerse myself in it. I am now determined to dive into the world of art criticism by subscribing to different websites, both academic and casual, seeing more exhibits and reading more artists statements and reviews on works I’ve seen myself, and following art critiques and comparing multiple writings from them.  I am also registered for Chad Dawkin’s curatorial practice class next semester which will definitely keep me involved in the art criticism world.

Will this help me to better understand voice and tone? Definitely.

Will I be able to successfully use voice and tone in my own writing? Hopefully.


All About the Concept

This past week our class visited the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas. The experience was overwhelming. We saw everything from a solar-powered-gigantic-hexagonal-web of colored wires to larger than life projections of the logging industry to obscure photographs laminated on the wall. One thing every exhibit had in common was its intense focus on the concept behind it. Nothing was simply “art for art’s sake”. The building as a whole had a very meticulous vibe to it. Everything had its place, nothing left to chance. The exhibits all seemed to balance each other out, the VAC had paintings, sculptures, and videos. I felt a strong connection with almost every exhibit, each provoking a reaction from a different part of myself. I think I felt the strongest connection to the photographs that were stuck directly on the walls. The lack of a frame and any three dimensional depth to the photos made the entire experience very intimate and allowed me to get closer than I probably usually would and create a relationship with each piece. The array of subjects and styles were also very intriguing. It seemed to have something for everyone.

As a (hopeful) future curator, this was simultaneously exciting and intimidating. I would love to bring work like that together but I also fear the need for the concept behind a work. I think many works stand for themselves and giving the audience the meaning or intent behind a work may jeopardize their experience.

Do these exhibits need their concepts to be known in advance? Would they have been more or less impactful if you did not know the artists’ intentions?