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Essay by Robert Enright
The Very Rich Collaboration Between Leon Rooke
© Robert Enright
The idea that god talks in his sleep is an entrancing notion. To be truthful, I had never entertained the possibility. For that matter, I’m not sure I even thought he slept. I know the story about him resting after the Six Days of Creation, but the idea of the supine stretch of his body, eyes closed, and maybe an embarrassing noise escaping from his mouth, never entered my mind. Since we know that he knows everything we think, and he sees everything we do, it occurred to me that sleep could get in the way of that omnivorous knowledge. And he wouldn’t have to worry about sleep deprivation because…well, he’s god. But Leon Rooke’s title got me thinking about what god does say in his sleep; does he cry out his sympathetic pain and frustration at the way his creation has gone awry; does he whisper the name of his secret inamorata; does he babble in his dreaming of dreams?
These are, of course, speculations fueled by the rich suggestion of Leon Rooke’s naming, of his own god-playing in the world that he and Tony Calzetta have created. To be sure, there are readable clues as to the kind of guy god is and my advice would be not to cross him. In the opening story, which Calzetta has realized in the form of a foldout book sculpture, he comes across as a extortionist, subtly reminding us that tithing twice as much as expected just might help us avoid walking into open graves. He’s also quite prepared to leave the status quo as it is, rendering those who are without still without. This god is heavily into cost reduction and profit maximization, no matter the price. He acts like a capricious finance minister, and dreams like a gangster.
God brackets the book; if he’s a somnambulant enforcer in the beginning, near the end he’s a letch, the hoary old leader of a group of confused disciples, chasing after a young girl and insinuating that he might withhold immortality if his physical needs are not administered to. He is also a prankster: when he can’t turn tricks with an innocent, he will play tricks on his unsuspecting creation. We are his flies and he is a wanton adult boy who has refused to grow up. He most certainly uses us for his sport.
I’m pleased to say that Leon Rooke and Tony Calzetta do too, in the most delightfully intelligent way. Their collaboration was made with heaven and hell equally in mind; it is full of madnesses and deceptions, serendipities and generosities; it smells of sulphur and vanilla. (Did I mention that it exudes the brightness of Mondrian’s palette?) It is riddled with foibles and rampant with felix culpas. It is worth saying, over and over again, that their having worked together was a most fortunate fall into the world of the livre d’artiste.
I think of Rooke and Calzetta as the Brother Grim and the Brother Grin. In their drawn and written incarnations, these fabulous fictions put on the degree of perversity and exuberance necessary to their telling. They are full of knowing innocence and an elusive jouissance. They occupy the terrain of the fairy tale, the allegory and the folk tale, all literary forms of deceptive simplicity.
The collaboration was a tidy one; Calzetta’s drawings were, at his own admission, “preparatory sketches”, notes to himself that simply delineated ideas for larger paintings – a shape might suggest a rock or a tree, a few undulating lines could be water, mountains, or the tracing of an uncertain sky.
Oftentimes, that hinterland exploration engaged a single image that Rooke would put to unusual purposes. A floating striped shape becomes the hand of god in the title story; in the next story a pair of pillars reminds him of bank architecture, wherein an overblown and cynical bank president addresses his minions; a shape with four points hovers above a prickly landscape and is transformed into the “four-tittied bitch of a Scots girl” who is “gallopeding on a grey pony around and around the castle walls”. In this story, Ms. Smith attempts to explain to her husband why she has spent the night in the nightgown of another man. The explanation has something to do with being “among our olives”, her admirably economical euphemism for the consumption of prodigious numbers of gin martinis.
This narrative is a perfect example of the improbable connections Rooke makes once his story starts rolling; you hear in Ms. Smith a character who could congenially inhabit a comic version of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue; the Scots girl is an ethnic variation on Lady Godiva; and Rooke discovers the wonderful word “gallopeding”, which initially he thought he had invented, in the letters of Virginia Woolf. It is a word he employs to his heart’s content. To borrow a phrase from another writer who gave language a run for its money, there are more things here than are dreamt of in most philosophies. “It’s the way language works”, Rooke says, “it suggests a story in the odd tumble of words.”
Let me offer a more complete example of how he springboards into narrative from the simple drawings that Calzetta has made available. At the outset, it is important to realize that Tony’s style of drawing is not in any way unknowing; the simplicity of his line and shape occupy a tradition that includes the quirky edginess of late Philip Guston, the nervous vibrations of Keith Haring, and the overall casualness of the cartoon. In the drawing for The Scroll of Civilization (I am providing only the abbreviated title), Calzetta sets a tube-like shape across a shaft that rises up from the water. It could be a thimble; it could be a finger; it could be just a form. This is a world governed by Could-be. So the central object is a piece of architecture; it is a sculptural object; it is an instrument of maritime navigation.
What Rooke does is layer meanings onto the horizontal shape: in his telling it is the scroll of civilization, transformed initially into a rusted periscope and then into a metonymic ship, the periscope of which allows us to see land and to discover a safe navigation. What the scroll carries is itself, the inscribed representation of civilization, which is transported to the uninhabited isle. This is the story of The Tempest and the myth of Atlantis rolled into one small discursive fragment, and it all develops out of a single, uncomplicated drawing.
The story itself is a fable, an elaborate narrative of society’s indifference to the artist. The Scroll of Civilization is full of fine conceits and pleasing literary contours. The name of the painter is Exubrio; his wife (herself a sculptor whose art is reviled and who is reduced to cleaning toilet bowls) is called Denuncia Francesca Illuminati Luminesa. Her naming is a splendid redundancy; self-consciously overripe, commensurate with the story she inhabits. She is drugged to prevent her from attacking her stubborn husband who has decided to throw his life’s work into the sea. The story has a courtly frame with a decidedly contemporary twist and an economical sense of the colloquial. (Their daughter, the lovely Cherise, has been punching her dearest friends “in the chops” as an angry response to her parent’s lack of recognition). In the midst of this hand-wringing and domestic melodrama, we get the elegant line as the sleeping potion embraces the potentially murderous Denuncia. The potion “compelled her pulse at that moment to slow, her head to nod, her breath to leap as a gazelle summoned to lazy dream.” Rooke channels Andrew Marvel and faintly complains on the little death of his own fawn-like creature.
Calzetta came to appreciate that it would be difficult to do illustrations for Rooke’s writing. “I thought it would work better the opposite way because I knew he liked my work and that he would have fun with it.” When he read the stories Rooke had written in response to his drawings (they were “quite strange”) he realized the initial collaboration he’d had in mind wasn’t going to do justice to the text. As Rooke had done in the writing, Calzetta began sampling his own repertoire of influences. He looked to a Whitney Museum catalogue of Red Grooms’s work from the 1970s; he lifted the pure colour scheme that Jim Dine had used in designing the Catalogue Raisonné for his photographic work (the four volume set published by Steidl in 2003 was called The Photographs, So Far); he scrutinized pop-up books. The project began to generate its own sense of complexity. “It definitely had a mind of its own”, he recalls. “At one point I couldn’t get a handle on it, it just kept changing. It was like being in a car and not being able to steer it.”
Calzetta stayed in the driver’s seat and now the vehicle hums along. He also changed roles inside the process, moving from driver to engineer and mechanic. He began to re-work his original drawings in response to Rooke’s extrapolated readings. The title drawing is a revealing example of the reciprocal dialogue that has operated from word to image and not only from image to word. (There was an equivalent dialogue moving from image to image in the conversation between Calzetta and master printer Dieter Grund from Presswerk Editions who translated Tony’s drawings into the etchings and woodcuts that are so resolutely tipped into the folios). In the word-to-image exchange between writer and painter, Calzetta took the original pencil sketch for How God Talks in His Sleep and transformed it into a book sculpture which includes components from a number of the drawings and which locates the title drawing in the centre of the pop up space. The sculpture’s brilliant collage and origami form changes the simple graphite values of the sketch into a rich interplay of primary colours. At the top of the re-worked drawing is the yellow-handed arm of god, sporting a black and white striped pattern that Picasso could have worn on a Mediterranean beach, or that a convict could be wearing in jail. Given the character of the god we have encountered in the stories, the safest bet is on the latter. And if Picasso gets removed from the visual space, then Matisse finds his rightful spot in the radiant colours and lyrical shapes that Calzetta has orchestrated in this miniature cut-out world.
The collaboration between painter and writer comes together most forcefully in their shared theatricality. Rooke finds in Calzetta’s work a predisposition towards the dramatic, and a defining structure that often takes the form of a proscenium stage. This tendency perfectly suits Rooke’s own sense of theatre and the way he develops his characters. They write themselves into existence and they interact in accordance with the kind of character they are. They are most apparent in the ravening beasts at fairy godfather house, a drawing in which a trio of sail-topped pillars (or dunce-like pillars – you can take your pick) seem to be doing a standup routine inside a space flanked by stage curtains. Calzetta draws the stage and Rooke gathers together the ensemble company to perform there. His cast is a clutch of the slandered and the exonerated, the latter group including buxom peasant girls and black musicians who have sold their souls, women who have kissed frogs, soufflé chefs, “those who polish our steeples in the dead of winter”, and “my lover who warmly says goodnight to me every morning.” They’re like figures from a reverse elimination dance and their play ends when the ravenous beasts venture into the nocturnal landscape, spurred on by the hissing of oleander bushes, the panting of mongrels and the sight of “bleached skulls hanging from boughs bent by all that came before our society was formed.”
What a fabulous vision: dystopic, generative, monstrous and mutable. Leon Rooke and Tony Calzetta have made something unique inside the frame of their combined word pictures. They are at once director, actor, set designer, writer and painter. They have made the stage, and have given it form and language. As I say it, the whole enterprise sounds godly.
ROBERT ENRIGHT is the Senior Contributing Editor for the Winnipeg-based arts magazine, Border Crossings, and the University Research Professor in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph, where he teaches in the Graduate Program. He is the author of Peregrinations, a collection of interviews with contemporary artists, and of a monograph on Eric Fischl published by Monacelli Press in New York. He writes regularly for the Arts section of the Globe & Mail and has contributed introductions, essays and interviews to some 40 books and exhibition catalogues. In 2005 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
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