Surrealism in the Real


The Whittliff Collections:

Recurring Dream, Rocky Schenck


            Walking into Rocky Schenck’s exhibition at the Whittliff Collections induces the feeling of venturing into a vault. Although the gates to the gallery are completely open, there is still a feeling that there are precious things held within, waiting for discovery and adoration. I was met with a large font foreword, almost as a warning to caution viewers to what they are agreeing to enter. I immediately noticed how massive this exhibition is, later learning there are over seventy works on show. It’s a representation of Schenck’s acknowledgement of his reflection and investigation into the effect of dreams.

The foreword recognizes Schenck’s tendency towards black and white dreamscapes, but includes a preface that this time there are also hand-tinted oil prints. I was intrigued by the effect of this technique, not being familiar with the Victorian process of hand-tinting.  Even with the size of the entrance and the font of the words on the wall, I was not ready to see four square feet of images in a triptych. These are just a few of the color images warned about from the beginning. These three, as is the whole exhibit, are set horizontally with the center line being at eye level, allowing for the work to be seen without discomfort.  This set is pure landscape, a complete absence of human life. They have been treated equally with soft tints of purple and orange, with a dominant shadow of black for contrast and clarity. Together, Schenck creates a dreamlike sense of American identity through these images. The left: a classic image of the Grand Canyon (classically titled, “Canyon”), the middle: a typical beach scene from California, and the right: an estuary that opens up to the sky. Beyond having the same color scheme, the sky line is even throughout the triptych, merging the three without having to be glaringly obvious about it. I enjoyed the continuity between groups, enforcing a united identity between the images.

The exhibit continues this carousel of themes. Included in the exhibit, are four sections of grouped works and, in each section, there are colored images juxtaposed to ones that are black and white. Schenck is not limited by set bounds. Walking through the gallery is similar to how I imagine being able to skim through a gallery of dreams. He includes soft focused landscapes with high contrast carnival scenes, with cartoon-like harshness. Schenck shows off his skill at a somewhat forgotten ability, hand-tinting even the black and white images. He purposefully enhances vignettes and creates an implied focus point even in abstracted works.

Hidden from the entrance, there is a long wall that branches off into sub-rooms that hold and connect each sectioned off area of art. Here, I found a set of four images. Their theme is a carnival show, highlighting Near Vegas, the center image. Schenck successfully implies a foreboding air to these images while maintaining the fun and cartoonish theme. Similar to Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, Schenck is heavy handed with his lines, transforming a simple smile to a garish imitation. The work on the far right, a line of can-can dancers preparing to open the thick stage curtain behind them, is frightening not due to what it shows, but what it doesn’t. There is threat lurking behind a solid curtain of dark blue, menacing in its obscurity. As far as dream inferences go, in this grouping, Schenck produces the opening act of a nightmare – a seemingly unobtrusive, supposedly fun activity marred by hostile enclosure.

Following the map of his dreamscape, Schenck shows five idyllic images – free flowing with soft and welcoming forests. I was impressed with Schenck’s ability to capture such varied and contrasting subjects. Patterns continue within the artist’s exhibition. While not completely flat, Schenck rolls his horizon lines from one image to the next, ending on a work that has a high vantage point, allowing a sense of openness that leads to the implication that nothing is hidden from sight.

I was able to pick out certain viewpoints and people as familiar as I walked through the gallery. For instance, in almost every room there is the same woman, never fully facing the viewer, but recognizable none the less. Schenck transforms her from a lounge singer in noir to a colored symbol of Western folklore titled Lolita to one of the dancers lined up in the Vegas carnival. This tactic of repeated icons shows the subtle flow of connections between the works being exhibited. Here, the title of the exhibit, The Recurring Dream, is revealed as true. Schenck, admitting he is strongly influenced by remembered dreams, reflects this surreal influence in unobtrusive repetition throughout the exhibit. Schenck chooses and varies colors at will, changing the overall tone of the exhibition from what could be an overwhelming amount of grey to a merry-go-round of colors and emotions.

In his artist statement, framed opposite the foreword, Schenck writes that his photography focuses on “documented dreams.” His goal is to blur the line between the real and the imaginary. With photography, there is a peculiar assumption of realness which remains even when transferred to prints. While the images might have certain implications of realness, the reality is that they were created in Schenck’s mind, with his hands, and tinted to his choice. What once might have passed as a representation of reality has now been covered in multiple layers of surface oils moving it into a limbo. The works hover between worlds of completely imaginary and a scene taken from reality.

It’s an interesting concept that Schenck dives into in Recurring Dream. At the Whittliff, he gets the unique chance to have free reign in a gallery space that can easily hold such a large number of works. With over seventy images hanging on the walls, Schenck successfully constructs a gallery of universal dreams that I enjoyed. Regardless of a person’s background, the haziness of the works Schenck presents combined with the distinctive effect of hand tinting invites everyone to seek common ground with the implications Schenck provides in his works.