Arts Magazine: Mercies and Reason

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Mercies and Reason: Artist Thomas Rose has created a sanctuary, a place to reflect on both memory and memorialization

Thomas Rose has an abiding interest in creating contemplative space. In his "Mercies and Reason" exhibition, now in the Minnesota Gallery through April 19, 1992, the Twin Cities artist has constructed a kind of sanctuary for reflection on memory and memorialization, on the passage of time and eternity.

Rose's works almost always refer, he says, to "a kind of otherness, an imaginary space, a dreamed space." In the mixed-media "Mercies and Reason," Rose continues his evocations of transcendence and transience, but this time more specifically inspired by the recent death of his parents and the attendant reflections of mortality.

"You could say it's a memorial exhibition," explains Rose. His intention is not just to perpetuate his parents' memory, but to conjure viewers' recollections and recognitions and point to another reality; to connect our stories to his since, he says, "everyone has a memorial of one sort or another."

Using various materials in abstract constructions-photo panes, glass, ceramic tile, iron, Grip Strut steel-the artist seeks to convey this sense without overloading the space with specific references to his parents and his relationship with them. His father's vocation as an architect pervades the entire exhibition. And his mother's watch, given to her by Rose's father in 1932, constitutes a central image as it ticks away on a video screen.

"I hesitate to call this the architecture of death," he says. "This is a narrative of death as an extremely positive and transcendent experience. It has nothing at all to do with religion itself but with the way I interpret my own belief systems. What do I really think is going on in death? How do I think about my own mortality?"

Rose feels content with the natural way his parents died-no lingering, debilitating illnesses, no nursing homes or hospices. He was with his father when he died, holding his hand. "Thinking about one's own mortality is not an uninteresting thing," maintains the artist.

"Mercies and Reason" was also inspired by the work of Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. The year after his father died, Rose visited the Brion family tomb, designed by Scarpa, which dominates the unassuming San Vito cemetery near Verona, Italy. Rose was inspired by the way Scarpa used modern materials and forms to recreate, in both a poetic and personal way, the narrative of death.

As an artist, Rose strives to tap the poetic potential of materials, concentrating on details and contrasts, experimenting with the weight, mass and density of sculpture. In this installation, Rose uses materials metaphysically, in the way that something metaphysical is simply an allusion to something else. The notion of allusion finds apt expression in Rose's use of glass. Glass works as a symbol on a number of different levels: it is transparent, yet a barrier; a physical presence that is an "invisible" visual entity. The video image of his mother's watch provides another kind of symbol. In Rose's videotape, the hands of the watch move from twelve to two o'clock. They connote the passage of time, but the use of video-an electronic means of presenting a picture-is emblematic of another time frame.

Grounded in theories of perception and aesthetics, Rose configures familiar objects and materials in an abstract way to invite the viewer's attention to the interior experience elicited by the space. "When you go into the cathedral in Chartres, for instance," explains Rose, "what do you look at? Do you see the details or the larger space? Are you having an aesthetic experience? I tend to think you primarily feel the cathedral."

Rose wants the viewer "to see the spirit of the room rather than the objects." By eliminating the personal artifacts of his parents and any "clutter," as he calls it, Rose concentrates on providing a framework for viewers to have their own experiences and feelings evoked, a space to catalyze their own meditations.

The installation includes language, and Rose's use of words echoes his purposes for the art itself. "Language, even more than visual art, is a very imprecise form," he asserts, "although not everyone would agree with me on this, because words have a wider variety of meaning. You may write knowing what you're aiming toward, but never really hit it. Writing is a process by which you examine ideas, you construct something to see what it would feel like, what it would be like to be in this space. Objects, as they inhabit empty space, are like words floating around in a room that you can reconstruct and choose. What you create is a circumstantial poem."

Mercies and Reason" will be installed in the Minnesota Gallery, second floor, East Wing, until April 19, 1992. It is part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, a curatorial department of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Financial support for the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program includes a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and a departmental allocation from The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which receives a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, whose funds are appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature.

Special thanks to the Dayton Hudson, Jerome and General Mills Foundations for their creation of the Jerome Travel Study Fellowship. Additional funding for the project has been provided by the University of Minnesota grant-in-aid to research.

Holly Bridges Elliott worked for five years as a publications editor for Princeton University. She is currently a freelance writer and editor based in the Twin Cities.

Thomas Rose is an acclaimed artist who has had his work widely exhibited throughout the country. In "Mercies and Reason," an installation in the Minnesota Gallery through April 19, 1992, Rose has constructed a contemplative space. In a series of sculptural images, the artist explores narrativity, textuality, corporeality and historicity. (Above, Narrativity.) Using a variety of materials, the artist reconfigures familiar objects, such as a chair (left) made from the aggressive Grip Strut steel of exterior staircases.

Rose dedicates the installation to the memory of his mother and father, who passed away in 1987 and 1989. His mother's watch, given to her by Rose's father in 1932, is the central image of a video sculpture.

Citation: Holly Bridges Elliott, "Mercies and Reason: Artist Thomas Rose has created a sanctuary, a place to reflect on both memory and memorialization," Arts 15, no. 3 (March 1992): 7-8.