In 1946, when he was 11 years old, Otto Rogers sold the wheat he had grown on an experimental plot in Saskatchewan for $200. He thought for a long time about how to spend the money and finally decided to create an artist’s studio out of materials that he ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. “I bought a box of oil paints, a palette, an easel and some brushes,” he says. “I carefully set it all up in an old harness room in the barn, and it was a sort of model artist studio. But it never occurred to me that in a studio you make art.”
The deliberateness with which Rogers organized his inactive studio has persisted, as has his compulsion to order the world around him. For the past 30 years Rogers, more than any other western painter, has captured the quiet grandeur of the Canadian Prairies. His work is a light meter, absorbing and measuring prairie expanses, and at the same time expressing an intense spirituality. An active member of the Baha’i faith since 1960, Rogers sees painting as a means of revealing the close relation-
ship between the spiritual and material worlds. Otto Rogers: A Survey 19731982, an exhibition of 23 paintings and collages which opened Sept. 23 at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon (and which will travel to eight other Canadian centres through March of 1984), goes a long way to substantiate Saskatoon critic Peter Millard’s claim that Rogers is “the best landscape painter in Canada.”
Rogers is part of a western painting tradition that includes both landscape and abstraction. Although connected to the New York-influenced color abstractionists centred at Saskatchewan’s Emma Lake workshops, he has always been more his own painter than anyone else’s. While he treats the canvas as a field where color can be employed on a large scale, Rogers has always been distinguished by his affinity with European painting. The structure of Picasso’s cubism and the mark-making of Miró have been more important touchstones for his art than have the hovering color-shapes of Rothko.
Once a semi abstractionist, Rogers
was known in the 1960s for large paintings of mushroom-like trees floating in rectangular pillows of pigment. Gradually, that central image began to break up and the paintings have become more atmospheric; dots and lines activate the surface. But his landscapes from the 1970s are concerned not only with color and texture but also with a strong visionary content, as if the paintings were lit from within.
Rogers’ mottled, scraped and distressed surfaces have a powerful elegance. Prairie (1974), an expanse of yellow suffused with blue, is a gorgeous landscape with a recognizable horizon, foreground lines that vaguely trace the vanishing point of a road, and layers of thin, scraggly clouds in the sky. A transitional work that shows Rogers’ obedience to the modernist commandments of texture and tone, Prairie also captures the mystical subtlety of prairie light. Rogers does not allow the viewer to read his landscapes too literally; the painting is concerned less with marks on paper than with holes through which light emanates or around which it clusters.
His interest in structure has led him naturally to the collaged works on paper which, taken together, add up to careful scrapbooks documenting the endless space and expansive light of the Prairies. In Architectural Flower (1979), the exhibition’s single construction, pieces of wood and fragments of torn paper are built into space. With a tiny abstract flower tucked under a wing of wood, it is a simple celebration of nature.
In a secular and postmodern age, Rogers attests to the presence of God in the world. For him, painting is a ritual, a way of reinforcing things he already knows rather than a means of exploring a possibility. Ultimately, his is an optimistic vision, even an innocent one. The paintings themselves transform the Mendel Gallery into a painterly church with such titles as Contemplation and Movement of Light Through Darkness.
Rogers has always used the canvas as a field where tensions could be resolved, a kind of spiritual battleground. The recent sombre paintings, with thick applications of paint and a more pronounced structure, are often divided in half, as if Rogers were brooding over the light and dark makeup of the soul. Approach to a SacredP(ace(1981),aspiritualautobiography in paint, is divided in two, with a conspicuous black dot in each half, like a pair of omnivorous eyes. The halves are also doors about to open and reveal something splendid beyond. One senses that Otto Rogers already knows what he will discover behind them. “Nature,” he says, quoting with approval some Old World divine, “is God’s art.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.