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)


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.