Identity crisis

Joan Sullivan
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Bill Rose explores ideas about nationality in a new show that's a feast for the eyes and brain

The art of Bill Rose can look straightforward enough. Familiar, even iconographic objects, places and people are displayed in a sharply representational manner. Pop stars, national insignia and world-weary-famous tourist sites are all precisely wrought and easily recognized.

But the art of Bill Rose is not nearly so simple.

The pieces are full of jokes and codes, overt and subverted messages. Epigrams, pleas and statements are embedded in the imagery, visual tricks like proverbial banana peels lying in wait to upend presumptions and preconceptions.

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation," oil on canvas, 2006 by Bill Rose. Photo courtesy of the Christina Parker Gallery

The art of Bill Rose can look straightforward enough. Familiar, even iconographic objects, places and people are displayed in a sharply representational manner. Pop stars, national insignia and world-weary-famous tourist sites are all precisely wrought and easily recognized.

But the art of Bill Rose is not nearly so simple.

The pieces are full of jokes and codes, overt and subverted messages. Epigrams, pleas and statements are embedded in the imagery, visual tricks like proverbial banana peels lying in wait to upend presumptions and preconceptions.

There are a couple of other things that help define Rose's art. He works big, sometimes really big, and he uses "found" pictures, photos and reproductions culled from newspapers and magazines and the Internet. And Rose's materials are equally precise in their pranksterism and social and political mischievousness. Here, the medium really is the message.

This skilful blend of hyper-realism and faux trompe l'oeil pragmatism owes something to American visual artist Chuck Close, renowned for his supersize clear-cut portraits. And, like Close, Rose can take the quotidian and spread it across a massive grid. But Rose seems to work more with concepts and concerns than people, and he approaches them from a definite Newfoundland perspective, as opposed to a mainland or American viewpoint.

There are 11 works in "Uh Oh Canada," some making their debut, and most of them created since 2003. They include oil painting on canvas, stamp pad on paper, watercolour, acrylic paint on Tylenol tablets, and stamp pad on sealskin - and we'll get to that in a moment.

"Niagara Falls is..." has an immediate wallop, a large painting with the celebrated locale done in fine vertical strips; the effect is like looking at it though a specifically mottled glass. Stenciled across it in black capital letters is Oscar Wilde's much-quoted aphorism: "Niagara Falls is the 2nd largest disappointment in a new bride's life."

"History Lesson" sets four distinguished Canadian landscapes with the white-stenciled names of their equally eminent creators: Carmichael, Casson, Harris and Thompson. White lines criss-cross the black canvas, linking the artist to the appropriate scene.

Looking at these pieces, seeing Rose's dexterous and often lovely brushwork topped with the uniform stencils, overlaid with vocabulary, a lot of viewers want to take the text off. I know, I know. If you wanted to read, you'd be at the library. But Rose is absolutely not interested in making pretty pictures. He has something to say, and it takes both pictures and words.

The diptych "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" is a big unfurling Maple Leaf bearing the words, "In the time it took to make this painting, 20 Canadian soldiers were killed." An enormous black and white portrait of Pierre Elliott Trudeau is stamped in little maple leafs. A rumpled American flag is quietly embossed with the term "Body Bag." And Paul McCartney in "The Walrus was Paul" is composed of stamped dollar signs on sealskin.

All the pieces - the portrait of Joseph Smallwood, the snapshot of British Prince Edward kissing his bride, Sophie, the visually and morally eroded depiction of a Time Magazine cover of U.S. President George W. Bush - hold puns and symbols and a secret, visually initiated language.

This exhibition is a shout of whopping pop commentary.

"Uh Oh Canada" runs until Oct. 12. There's an opening reception tonight from 5:30-8 p.m.

Organizations: Time Magazine

Geographic location: Niagara Falls, Newfoundland, Maple Leaf U.S.

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