Roger Dorset

Great American Gallery

For the last 10 years Roger Dorset has obsessively sought the primal sources of art in the self, sexuality, and religion. Stripping away the languages of the market and the art school, he has achieved what he calls a “déjà vu language,” in which a viewer can recognize basic emotions, shared perceptions, or common experiences. Dorset’s work, often in the form of iconlike “shrines” or “reliquaries,” may seem to owe much to primitive or outsider art, but it is not based on imitation. Instead, he has compulsively simplified his content and his form of expression, so that his symbols and technique show extreme, pure states of fear, envy, desire, or awe—often mixed in a single work. Penile and vaginal forms occupy prominent places in many works, denoting both joyful and fearful sexuality. Some of the most striking pieces are, like Missionary, 1987, eccentrically shaped wooden forms heavily painted in acrylic with spirals, S-shapes, squared crosses, and short strokes of bright color. The eye, one of his most prominent symbols, often refers not to magic but to voyeurism, as it is frequently placed alongside sexual images. Other symbols, such as the house sketched in many works or constructed in three dimensions, are more ambiguous, as in Reliquary III, a small freestanding sculpture whose roof is pierced by a wide-open mouth, revealing only a dark, empty interior.

Dorset absorbs symbols from many sources, but he never simply appropriates them. They are always transformed, becoming elements in his own private but accessible system. The resulting works are strikingly beautiful and richly suggestive works of art. This show—which included boxes, banners, furniture manipulated beyond any function, sculptures, and several painted panels—surveyed Dorset’s oeuvre from the last eight years, during which he has maintained a high level of spontaneity and energy. The banners are the only pieces whose symbols seem obvious; without exception, the rest of the works have a cumulative power. Bright and dark elements, blatant and ambiguous symbols, and the artist’s obsessive search for meaning all unite to convey to the viewer a sense of Dorset’s intense but skeptical spirituality, his extreme emotional states, and his artistic vision.

Glenn Harper