One way that art inspires recognition is with inklings of the real, counterbalanced with the unreal. The work of visual artist Roger Kukes is emphatically clever and clear. His oeuvre is characterized by an esthetic sense that resounds with the whirling of the world, the tale of it all as he’s come to know it. Like all of life, it’s a beautifully controlled chaos.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is excerpted from the much-longer introduction to the 25-year retrospective of the work of Portland artist Roger Kukes. That retrospective is in the Augen Gallery, 716 NW Davis Street, through November 2.
Kukes works between the modes of acrylic, watercolor, and gouache painting, lithography, graphite and ink drawing. His work comprises medium- to large-format works which—like the best of our poets and experimental filmmakers—juxtapose the illogical with the utterly clear, the wryly comical with the tragic, the architectonic with the haphazard.
This method allows the artist to move beyond intellectual or conventional narrative themes. Kukes shows the understanding that life’s indeterminacy can be a virtue when harnessed to imagination. His manner of rendering is that of the seasoned draftsman, with the facility of the magician behind a movie-camera, the poet taking you to far-off places.
His life’s work is typified by plainly relatable motifs offset by equivocal forms and settings. Kukes’s pictures reveal an effort to deeply understand himself and then, going from there, the culture and society he’s immersed in, connected to. This latter trait is evident in his recent paintings. They consider ecological degradation due to war and nuclear waste, and the killing of marginalized peoples such as the Native Americans (in the conquest of the “West”) and the Japanese (in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). This material is not tacked on indiscriminately, but rather, it evinces a work toward, as Kukes put it, “a more public way of communicating, organically, through art.”
With hints of bearing witness, these compositions are also just as dynamic, lightly humorous as before, and even more illuminating. He is able to communicate with his viewer in terms that are both off-the-cuff (comic) and deeply resonant (tragic), with the specificity of pertinent issues. This presents a way into the human story—the tragicomedy of life, where sorrow so often brings humor its edge.
Good fortune precipitated Kukes’s trajectory. In his formative years, he studied with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass at Wayne State University, graduating in 1965. Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, he went on to study painting and drawing in graduate school at Yale, where he completed his MFA. He later came to realize, having taught himself how to paint in acrylic and through the assiduous development of his craft, that all artists are self-taught, as he asserted to me in one of our many conversations. This philosophy is characteristic of his assiduousness, his sense of openness: Anyone can become an artist, but they have to be ready to work. You can’t take no for an answer. You have to believe you can, will, and must do these things, he insisted.
During a subsequent five years living in New York City, Kukes taught art to children, drove a taxi, and worked as a caseworker—amid all other NYC-life activities. In the hubbub of city life and ready for a productive change, Kukes found himself somewhat disenchanted by his chosen mode: “The weird thing about painting is that you’re creating frozen images. There’s a disparity between that and honoring the reality that I was living, which was marked by constant change. The static nature of the image, when composed in those mediums, brought limitation where stimulation had been so easy to come by.”
Having asked himself, do I have anything to say as a visual artist?, Roger followed his curiosity in animation and film, discovering a path to experimental filmmaking. With a talent for drawing and painting, and a persistent desire to go beyond the effort to bring about the “absolute image,” he found a new direction. “I decided to hit the pause button and went into experimental filmmaking and animation. That was 13 years of my life, from age 23 to 36,” Kukes explained. This medium brought exciting possibilities to the rendering and juxtaposition of images, to narrative fragmentation. “You can tell multiple stories in film, just by cutting, jumping between different images. So much modern art is about form, shape, color and all of that. It’s not as much about stories, but that’s what I’m interested in. Robert Colescott is this way, his work tells stories. Peter Saul and Saul Steinberg, storytellers, too.”
In 1972, Kukes moved to Portland, the place he’d call home for good. “I had already set my own course, which was not to be aligned with contemporary art styles or buzzwords. I was out here in the wilderness! not trying to wow anybody. Living in Portland gave me the opportunity to work on my own terms. Living in the belly of the beast, Manhattan, there’s so much pressure to go to the openings and see what people are doing. I couldn’t hear myself think.”
The dive into experimental filmmaking led to a waxing interest in animation, and his co-founding of The Animation Collective in his new home of Portland in 1979. The group ran an adventurous exhibition program, taught classes, held residencies in city schools, and forged an extraordinarily supportive community for young film-artists.
Kukes’s ambitions toward mastering every aspect of image making and processing is comprehensive and an important part of his legacy. By 1985, he’d gone on to write a “how to” book on animation, The Zoetrope Book, which was followed a decade later by Drawing in the Classroom. These books proved crucial to his ability to thrive economically as a working artist in his 40s and beyond.
As it happens, Kukes’s first passions, drawing and painting, never did stop pulling on his coat. Having questioned his station in the arts, he resolved that he had to test the waters of absolute images again. I like to imagine the more lighthearted figures of his pictures friskily nudging him, cajoling him to draw them out as he tries to engage in life’s less entertaining duties.
Throughout phases that signal his transformations and attentions, Kukes’s pictures remain various in important ways. He’s able to explore abstraction and realism as it relates to his inner, subjective world. He does this bearing consideration of what he perceives of the objective reality around him. His imaginative and technical wherewithal are constant, with evident development throughout the years. Due to an ongoing rigor, a rich frame of reference and perspective (having returned to painting and drawing later in life), he’s equipped himself to merge meticulous, demanding technique with vision. I was hungry. “By the time I got back to being a visual artist, I was ready, focused, determined”.
To my eye, inklings of certain of his favorite things make appearance in the early drawings on display at Augen: the narrative impetus of Persian Miniatures; the tragicomedy and high-craft in Bruegel the Elder; the wizardly draftsmanship of M.C. Escher, as well as that of Albrecht Dürer and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; the unique comic modernism of Saul Steinberg; the absurdism and superb drawing of MAD Magazine; and the juxtapositions of David Salle, among other contemporaries. In all these influences, a through-line can be found: the rejection of an easy explanation and, as Kukes notes, an invitation to the viewer to participate in the construction of meaning. A multivalent, all-over aspect is apparent in every single one of Kukes’s pictures, an effort to allow for discovery at every turn. He is ever balancing on an aesthetic tightrope, effortlessly so.
Kukes’s working process has been diligent from the beginning. A preparatory pencil drawing is used as a cartoon (in the manner of Renaissance artists like Michelangelo) for the subsequent ink drawing that is then traced onto another sheet of paper, which is then painted. This is a months-long technique that he still uses today.
For Kukes, the secret is patience. “That’s what brought me back to painting and drawing: slowing down. How sweet it is to make something over a period of time, to return to it to see what I think of it now, what keeps the work moving toward something as profound as possible.”
Early Kukes is supremely playful, intelligent, masterly without being vain. Juxtaposition is a key component of the work. Having undergone intensive psychotherapy in his formative years, Kukes is able to stay curious about his interior process and the function of his mind, with its parade of thoughts and images, to the extent that whatever emerges during the picture-making process is fair-game. Openings emerge due to the new relationships that are forged: one clear thing followed by another, in loose association. I hasten to add that the operative word is clear.
Kukes’s compositional approach of juxtaposition threads his works through time. Well, that tripled with his riotous hues and fertile fragments. This method has been put to use in all the arts, for seemingly all time, from poetry and painting to filmmaking and music. It yields totally exciting results when done well. By pairing or grouping ostensibly unlikely things, stories take on a variousness that proves worthy of multiple returns; they give way to various ends for various people and offer baffling truths.
The way that this features in Kukes’s later works is remarkable. Here, he is unmistakably intrigued by the strangeness of the modern world, and by working with his chosen mediums. Dealing in pressing, even heavy subjects, as in one of his Hanford paintings, Les Fleurs du Mal, he is successfully able to unify message with exploration, to use ambiguity, to lighten things up to just the appropriate degree. It’s never outrage; he never bops you over the head with politics. Instead, Kukes makes way for it. Information draws you in, attendant to the world as we know it, and as we don’t.