Faint Hope 2004

ROOT, Derek

A Still Of Video Titled Heavy Winter 2003

ROOT, Derek


One of the more curious episodes in Derek Root’s painting centers on the three to four year period from 1998-2002. At the time, he was making abstract paintings -- he describes them as color field paintings -- using an encaustic wax technique that he had developed. The paintings themselves are keyed to color, specifically ambiguous, atmospheric color, they feel process intensive and seem especially sensitive to the question of time. One wonders about their manufacture; one imagines the final step in the process to involve intensive scraping, an early stage permitting the artist only so much time to work with the liquid wax before it hardens and allowing only so much control over the atmospheric effects achieved. Here is the thing: alongside these abstractions that veritably defined Root’s paintings in the grand tradition of a signature style, he was drawing. Though these abstractions compel a range of modes of visual attentiveness for the viewer, all more or less bearing on an intense interest in and desire for surface, apparently for the artist the very hands-on technique of working with wax had to be balanced off a very private figurative dialogue in order to sustain a level of interest in the works and their impersonal protocols. Presumably, the cost of painting abstractly was high, for Root’s private drawings veer toward forms of erotica that forbid discussion.

I take the moment and its division between the apparently authentic and the proxy to be exemplary of a variety of developments and complexities in Root’s painting: further substitutions, exchanges, and stand-ins will follow. The tension between painting and drawing I point to is an economy of loss and gain that is dialectical. It is an if/then predicament that might be spelled-out thusly: if abstraction and the decorative, then the figure laid obscenely bare and revealed in all its perversion.

In distinction to the ease with which many contemporary painters slide into dialogues with abstract painting, Root’s difficult approach and commitment to abstraction marks a problematic that recalls various moments in the history of 20th century painting when painters schooled in figurative traditions actually had something to lose in choosing to paint non-figuratively. What kind of problematic is it exactly? Given Root’s fairly slow and orderly cataloguing of a number of very diverse styles of painting over the years, as well as the margin of return we note in his most current work, it is very much a painterly problematic keyed to the language of the medium itself. In retrospect, we can surmise that the crucial problem at stake during the period 1998-2002 involved the interrogation of a set of rigorously formal and reductive presuppositions about painting. Whether the artist himself believed in this reductive definition is difficult to say absolutely, but given the supplementary drawings this is doubtful. The point being that not only does the literal depth of the encaustic surface suggest that a narrow definition of the problem of presence was intentionally being put under specific pressure – perhaps even a threshold that translucency aimed to render obsolete – but that we are dealing with a dialogue already well under way. In the bigger picture, it seems the artist discovered that making something as intangible as feeling present in painting was irreducibly linked to placing something else, not merely in the shadows or wings, but ultimately outside of the frame altogether. In combination with the very palpable allure of tactility in these paintings – one typically wants to press a thumb into a corner or draw a fingernail across the surface – the intangible sense of surface placed at an obscure depth animates a subtly felt desire for more, to know more than one can know, more than knowing can know. From this perspective, the whitey depths of Root’s abstractions cannot be finally and absolutely grasped without the supplementary props that Root’s secretive practice of drawing supply. Yet the difficult surface of the encaustic paintings that face up too a viewer’s scrutiny, and hold up as compelling without the apparatus of reference and solely in terms of atmosphere, do yield a kind of surplus.

Root’s painting from 2002 to the present works to integrate this essential disparity or “affliction,” as he calls it. If the figure was once locked away in the cellar, in the wake of the encaustic paintings and their lesson, the figure would see the light of day, but abstraction and its surplus effect would not go into eclipse. A far broader notion of painting’s presence comes into effect: the powerful hors-cadre (off-frame) effect of abstract painting’s relation to figure drawing is fore grounded. Atmosphere as renewed content envelops the figure. But to what end? Look at one of Root’s most recent paintings My Arms, Your Hearse, from the Von Karajan series. Drama fills the frame, but so too does the figure. Opposites touch, and in that touching they breed monsters! Certainly, in Mourning the Captor, great men, and elsewhere in the series reflective, elegant, magnificent or serene men, but in My Arms, Your Hearse, merely megalomaniacs and monsters. In the latter, mediation is consumed by the fires of irony, but irony of a very particular sort. Having stuck with painting through the hard, lean years of Vancouver, Canada’s rise to international status as a hot spot for post-conceptual art and photography, in Root’s case it is an irony derived from dialogues internal to the medium and not simply from inter-textual borrowings and hybridizations. These days one automatically assumes that when painting is derived from photography, the latter is originary.

Shep Steiner