Greg Rook's paintings are deceptive. They take the 'honest' framing and style of classic Westerns, but place the cowboys in gently sinister scenes of survival, skinning and cleaning dead animals in the woods. Like HBO's excellent Deadwood, his new Clean Skins exhibition de-romanticises the cow-wranglers while keeping them within the filmic setting that idolised them. Louise Black went to the opening to investigate.
Dangerously disquieting, Greg Rook’s small exhibition of figurative paintings at the Vegas Gallery is designed to unsettle from the outset. On the whole the exhibition is made up of hyperrealist paintings depicting scenes of the American frontier, but this is no idealised landscape. Upon entering, the first image is a small grey canvas covered in text calling for like-minded Christian fundamentalists to come together and live off-grid in preparation for a kind of apocalyptic vision. Rook took the text from the classified section of the American Survival Guide magazine, making the over-zealous biblical language truly alarming because they are the words and beliefs of a real person.
This painting sets the tone of the exhibition in which it would be easy to miss the subtly disturbing undertones of the otherwise beautiful images. Suffused with a luminous, almost fluorescent light, Rook’s portrayal of old America is emphatically cinematic; imagine Dorothy stepping out of her wind-blown house into a land occupied by cowboys instead of Munchkins. Rook doesn’t only borrow his Technicolor colours from early cinema, the images from which he paints are artificially created from a variety of photographic sources including film stills. The result is an overly romantic view that at times borders on kitsch but never crosses the line into overt parody.
These paintings are so beautifully rendered that it becomes hard not to ask the question - is there an element of envy for a simpler, more meaningful existence? Rook makes it clear that the attitude towards the way of life represented in the images is deliberately ambiguous. There is a sense of inadequacy in which we are asked whether we have the essential skills to survive in such an environment, but this is countered by a questioning of the fundamentalist beliefs that drove early settlers to make such a life for themselves, and still has a similarly potent effect for many living today.
Where The Wind Blows
Often accused by his Irish wife of not believing in anything, Rook is exploring the extremes to which some will go in order to live out their beliefs. The filmic idealism of the imagery is constantly undermined by the hyperreal quality of the painting and the extremities of survival which it simultaneously masks and reveals. The title of the exhibition neatly contains the contradictions that it is attempting to unpick: Clean Skins at once refers to the utopian potential of a blank canvas, of wilderness life; on the other hand, a ‘cleanskin’ is the term for a member of a terrorist organisation who has no track record and therefore escapes state suspicion.
Clean Skins runs at the Vegas Gallery until 17 May. Open Thursday-Saturday 12-18 or by appointment. More info at www.vegasgallery.co.uk
Greg Rook is currently working on a commission for the David Roberts Art Foundation in Camden, to open in 2010. Greg also has a website - www.gregrook.co.uk