Feature

Dominic Rouse: Telling Truthful Lies

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Words: David Best

Perhaps it’s best to simply say that Dominic Rouse sits a little too long alone with his thoughts, spinning phantasmagorical allegories in his mind which he then translates, through computer alchemy, into some of the most interesting, unsettling, brazen and fantastic images being made today.

Given the baroque nature of his work, it’s understandable to hear Rouse describe his approach in slightly grandiose terms: “To take a piece of paper coated with a gelatin in which are suspended a million silver halides, and then to allow first light and then chemicals to caress it in such a way that they leave behind an impression of one’s soul, is an exquisite
joy, which no amount of criticism can diminish,” he says.

It was mediocrity, Rouse claims, which led to his lifetime passion for photography. An indifferent student in Ipswich, England, his exam scores were not high enough to allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a journalist. But his exams were at the level necessary to study photography, so Rouse went with plan ‘B’, learned about the medium for a year, and at 16 years of age began working as a press photographer for the local newspaper.

“After three or four years I grew bored with the limitations of the job,” Rouse says. “I applied to another college to study commercial photography. I had a great interest in learning special effects. It was rare for me to produce something that was a single image. Even back in the 1980s I was experimenting with putting disparate elements together to make an image. That turned into quite a good business because not many people in my neck of the woods were able to do what I could. I was charging a premium for producing photographic manipulations.”

“Making art is like walking a very fine line. To one side lies indolence, and on the other the fear of success.”

When Rouse discovered the digital world, in 1996, it was love at first sight. He could see the possibilities the computer opened up for him. “I’d had all these images in my head for years,” he says. “I don’t know what they were doing there, because I couldn’t do them photographically. I’d always assumed they were images I would do in my retirement, when I had plenty of time to put them together. My plan was to have them retouched by experts in London, probably by an airbrush artist. Suddenly I found this machine that allowed me to do it all by myself. It was absolutely fantastic. Suddenly I started flying.”

It was Geoff Clark, a tutor at Blackpool and the Fylde College, who opened Rouse’s mind to the poetic potential of photography. His years as a press photographer had instilled a certain cynicism — a constricted view of life as a working photographer. He knew there was a wider world of creative possibilities out there, and that people were doing interesting things, but it was a foreign, unexplored territory, and Rouse had no idea of how to get there on his own.

“I do not choose to make my images. They choose me to get made.”

“I can’t begin to tell you were my ideas come from,” Rouse says. “I can be doing anything — watching television, reading a book, happily playing with my daughter — a thousand things. Suddenly out of nowhere this idea arrives, usually fully formed. Then comes the pleasure of refining it over weeks, months, sometimes years. But this image has come crashing into my tiny mind, demanding to be made. That’s the starting point. And 99 times out of 100 I have a good idea of what it is I’m going to end up with because I can already clearly see it in my head.”

Rouse is nearly apologetic when explaining his shooting technique as “slapdash.” After studying commercial photography and learning 8×10 view-camera techniques as a studio photographer, he is now more of a snapshooter with his digital camera.

“When I go out shooting, I glean,” he explains. “I am ashamed to admit that I’m not as committed to excellence at the photography stage as I would have been 20 years ago. It’s really a waste of time for me to spend hours meticulously lighting and composing each shot, because I have so much more control in the computer. And chances are when I get the image into the digital realm I’m probably going to change everything anyway. So I’m just grabbing things I think I can use, and not paying any particular attention beyond getting the exposure right and making sure it is sharp.”

When the outlines of an image arrive in Rouse’s head, he either makes a sketch of what he saw in his mind’s eye or describes his brainstorm to his dictaphone, and the details go into a database on his computer. The image he sees usually involves a person or number of people situated in some kind of wondrous setting. A friend of his, who is something of a minimalist, suggested he stage his images against plain backgrounds, a venerated tradition for emphasizing the subject of a photograph. But Rouse would much rather situate his subjects in the world he sees when closing his eyes.

“I probably spend more time on the background,” say Rouse, “than I do on what you might call the punctum, or point of the image. One of the most difficult things about all this is perspective. If I were just putting an image together on a flat wall it would be relatively straightforward. But as soon as you start going for perspective and using elements that were all shot at different times, then putting these disparate objects together in a believable way, is one of those things that really takes a lot of time.”

“The fewer imaginative people there are the better, I say, because it leaves more room for me to run around in.”

More often than not, Rouse is bracketed as a surrealist. He is, understandably, often compared to Jerry Uelsmann, which he finds flattering. But he doesn’t consider his work to be surrealistic. There was a school of “fantastic realism” begun in Austria by Ernst Fuchs after WWII, which was an offshoot of surrealism, and that’s where he feels more comfortably ensconced.

Rouse recently coined the phrase “conceptual realism” to describe his imagery. He feels a stronger kinship with the likes of Goya, Bosch, Durer, Escher and Magritte than with any of the great photographers. He sees the camera and computer as the successors or relatives of the paintbrush, easel and canvas. It’s just another way of putting one’s impressions of the human condition into a personalized format.

“What really turns me on, artistically, are those huge canvases that adorn the museums of Europe,” he says. “When I stand in front of some of them, they take my breath away. The philosopher Wittgenstein said that a picture should be like a smack on the nose, but some of the work done by the masters of the last few centuries is more like a kick in the balls!

More often than not, Rouse is bracketed as a surrealist. He is, understandably, often compared to Jerry Uelsmann, which he finds flattering. But he doesn’t consider his work to be surrealistic. There was a school of “fantastic realism” begun in Austria by Ernst Fuchs after WWII, which was an offshoot of surrealism, and that’s where he feels more comfortably ensconced.

Rouse recently coined the phrase “conceptual realism” to describe his imagery. He feels a stronger kinship with the likes of Goya, Bosch, Durer, Escher and Magritte than with any of the great photographers. He sees the camera and computer as the successors or relatives of the paintbrush, easel and canvas. It’s just another way of putting one’s impressions of the human condition into a personalized format.

“What really turns me on, artistically, are those huge canvases that adorn the museums of Europe,” he says. “When I stand in front of some of them, they take my breath away. The philosopher Wittgenstein said that a picture should be like a smack on the nose, but some of the work done by the masters of the last few centuries is more like a kick in the balls!

“I don’t really care how Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci arrived at the point they did when they completed their work. I suppose it’s of passing interest to know their process, but when you are standing in front of a colossal piece of work — a piece of human genius — the brushes used don’t really seem very important. It’s not how you get there; just getting there at all is the achievement. Let’s be frank, not very many of us get anywhere near it.”

“The truth is the only lie worth telling.”

“The older I get, the more I suspect there really is no such thing as truth. I would describe my work as an exposition of the fallacy that we humans call ‘truth.’ Art is often described as the search for truth and beauty, and in that respect it’s very closely aligned with religion and philosophy. But if you ask my opinion, truth doesn’t exist.

“Facts exist, but facts only serve to lead us further away from any hope of a ‘truth.” If an artist concentrates solely on discovering the truth, he will rapidly find himself unemployed. It seems to me that what artists do is give their honest impression of lies, which is the closest we humans have to a truth. The most horrific aspect of truth is that it does not exist.”

Rouse is still searching for an apt description of what he does. He entitled one exhibition, “Haunted by a Painter’s Ghost” after an essay in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who said we are so conditioned from looking at paintings that they necessarily color the way we see photographs.

Someone else described his work as “monastic porn.” But it was a Thai friend who hit the nail closest to its head, as far as Rouse is concerned. This man, with limited English skills, described Rouse’s images as “digital antiques.”

“I suspect God bestows the gift of art upon those who cannot reach Him by the more conventional paths.”

“I’m no longer convinced of the existence of God,” Rouse says. “Certainly not in the paternalist or biblical sense that we are taught in Sunday school. But I’d say that even if He does not exist we should still seek Him. Making art, in my experience, is the closest we can get to God without actually having to be good.

“It is not nihilism, but an insistent questioning of what is taught to us that is the touchstone for all my images. I’m aware that my images are improbable. But so is life itself. When people ask me to explain my work, I say, ‘If you can explain life to me, then perhaps I’ll be able to explain my work to you.’ Art is the mystery that opens the door onto another mystery. That mystery is us.

“When I’m dead and gone these images will stand as a testament to my existence, if anybody is interested. And even if they are not greatly interested they will still be there in one form or another. They will testify that a rather odd man called Dominic Rouse lived from 1959 to whenever, I guess.”

Fact File
You can see the full range of Rouse’s “digital antiques” at www.dominicrouse.com.

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