Storytelling and Multiverse: Interview with Roger Allen Cleaves for A World Apart at Sheet Cake Gallery

Published March 8th 2024
By Sophia Mason

Blue Notes by Roger Allan Cleaves, Photo Courtesy of Sheet Cake Gallery, 2024

Roger Allen Cleaves is a native of Memphis, TN. He attended the University of Memphis and the Yale Norfolk Summer Program for the Arts. He went on to earn an MFA from The University of Wisconsin-Madison. His paintings and drawings deal in environment and the figure and the gestures of collage, cartoon, and popular culture, as well as contemporary painting. He trades in social landscape and personal history through a canvas plane coated in washes that then hold images for informational purposes, the meanings of which are often withheld or obscured.

The contemporary art gallery Sheet Cake in Memphis will be exhibiting A World Apart, a solo show of Cleaves’s paintings starting March 9th and showing through April 27th, 2024. This body of work depicts the Land of the Forget Me Nots, a multiverse space of Cleaves’ creating where forgotten people can reacquaint themselves with their place in time. In association with the show opening, Roger Allen Cleaves offered some insight into the paintings as we discussed fiction, sculpture, and psychopomp.

Sophia Mason: Your artist statement focuses on how your paintings come out of a fictional story you’ve created, The Land of the Forget Me Nots, and you talk about working in the mode of Afrofuturism, or an evolving creative field that reimagines, and thus reclaims the past and present to broadcast an empowering future for African Diasporic people. Do you define Afrofuturism differently for yourself or your painting?

Roger Allen Cleaves: I think of my version of Afrofuturism as stemming from an examination of the relationship between visual artists of color and the art institutions.  The history of art has moments where people of color are present and noticeably absent. Using world building, writing, and the desire to create I try to fill in the missing gaps and take the inclusion of people of color to mean more than just images of them existing. My version of Afrofuturism is about thematic ideas that are constantly growing and expanding. 
Ralph Ellison wrote that,” Behind each artist there stands a traditional sense of style…It is something which the artist shares with the group, and part of our boyish activity expressed a yearning to make any-and everything of quality Negro American; to appropriate it, possess it, re-create it in our own group and individual images.
I take the things I am naturally captivated by in life and I create my own unique version of Afrofuturism.

S.M. : I love African American science fiction because it deals with so many social concerns that Memphis deals with every day. No other genre gets there the same way for me. Do you have literary touchstones with this new work that is based in creating fiction as a process?

R.A.C. : I’m sure the created worlds of my youth helped expand my idea of the possibilities of world building. Magical spheres of existence and epic tales of heroism are both themes that held my attention. I enjoyed Pinocchio, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and Don Quixote for their fantastical nature. As I aged I became more interested in the underbelly of life and corruption. The protective veil that shields children from the realities of life was shattered when I read novels like Animal Farm, Invisible Man, and Fahrenheit 451. The battles fought between opposing forces hold a magnetic allure and the intensity is the strongest when beauty meets the grotesque.   This period of my life was also the golden age of comics, cartoons, and video games, which equally had an effect on my artistic development. In my eyes as a child I thought the highest form of art were the Sunday newspaper comics. They had the ability to tell a story and they used, at times, deceptively innocent characters that were proxies for real life counterparts. When it comes to fiction I gravitate towards stories that are imperfect, awkward, and gritty because that represents to me what it means to be alive in contemporary times.

S.M. : How did you come to painting and drawing from a story of your own making?

R.A.C. : When I think back to my first non-prompted artworks while pursuing my education I have always had an interest in being in control over worlds that represent microcosms of society. I had zero interest in flattering people through classic portraiture or using art as a mascot for their political identity. My interest rested with the essence of people, their desires, and their secrets that are revealed only when they are away from the public eye. Storytelling allows you to take that voyeuristic position and watch a story unfold. I use figurative abstraction to unravel that essence and I wanted it to have a world so it would not be homeless. As artists we make the work that is missing from the world. The inclusion of the black artist as the portrait painter and the civil rights activist was and is still today prominently shown.  I feel showing works of that style gives curators an easy way to show they care about minorities without having to dive deeper into any concerns. I began to wonder what the often stoic looking models in those artworks did when they were not sitting around in fields of flowers or other rustic locations proclaiming that they are indeed men and women. I wanted to walk in the galleries and museums and see art that could not be summed up in a few sentences. I wanted to see artworks that were as visually dynamic as the culture. I wanted to see less images that pulled at my heartstrings because of the color of the subject’s skin or because of antiquated visual tropes of the 70s. I knew there was a place for storytelling, complexity, invention, and critical thinking and that Forget Me Nots Land could help shatter the box.

The Garden by Roger Allan Cleaves, Photo Courtesy of Sheet Cake Gallery, 2024

S.M. : I see a bit of William H. Johnson and modernism by way of West Africa into Harlem in the ‘30s in your work, maybe Basquiat, underground comix line work too. What painters or artists are touchstones for you?

R.A.C. : I like to use the history of art and Modernism as access points for the viewer to enter a work with a certain understanding of familiarity. It’s the people that are knowledgeable enough to catch the connection points who interest me the most as viewers. When I quote cubism it’s to reclaim it from Picasso and make the connections with the viewer back to its African roots. If Manet depicted every person of color as a servant in a painting I might reimagine them back into updated paintings using his own compositions, but placing the figures in the positions of power. On any particular day I might be meditating on Bob Thompson’s use of color and his thoughts on “colored”. Any and every thing is fair game because I am a student of history who is unafraid to be measured by it. I admire Picasso’s work ethic and output, Basquiat’s ability to be so personable and simultaneously symbolic, and Phillip Guston’s ability to distort and create a mood that leaves you feeling sad for a pair of worn shoes. The comic artist line will always be a part of my work because it’s my first friend and love. We learn how to make lines before anything else but the arts more about the reason for the lines and what’s held inside.

S.M. : Tell me more about process. Some of your paintings have an exposed wash that delineates the picture plane, but that is left alone for the characters and landscape to populate. I see this happen in some of the ink wash portraits at Sheet Cake as well. How do you approach the stages of your paintings and drawings?

Thompson Park by Roger Allan Cleaves, Photo Courtesy of Sheet Cake Gallery, 2024

R.A.C. : My art education is probably a mixture of all the perfect things. I’m a product of true classical painting and what I like to think of as a rough house style. Usually my work starts with something lyrical like a meditation of abstract lines or a wash of turpentine and pigment on a canvas. Disrupting the blank picture plane sets the stage and gives me a place to enter the piece while freeing my imagination. On some days I might create ten to twenty pages of line drawings that build upon shapes and allow the lines to become the objects that enter my mind. At times I might see a texture on an abandoned drawing or paintings and perform life saving surgery with a pair of scissors and through assemblage. There are realized moments I create from a point of view as a direct spectator and those are usually handled classically. There are things that I create from second hand information between characters and those moments lend best to abstraction and distortion. Then there are the forgeries of the art that I imagine existing somewhere inside my created world and the limitations on those are open ended.  I try to create each piece with an intention of capturing the essence and the mood using the right tools from my arsenal.

S.M. : You’ve also dipped your toes into sculpture or installation with Flyweight gallery in Brooklyn. What did that do for you that was different from painting and drawing on 2D surfaces?

R.A.C. : My MFA Thesis show was mostly installation and sculpture. I think of undergraduate school and graduate school as places where I was testing world building without knowing that was my intention. Flyweight allowed me to get back to that idea of working three dimensionally after a long departure.  Sculpture provides a spectacular event that is a different kind of magic opposed to painting. Instead of looking into the artwork you walk around it and that provides room for different kinds of games with the spectator. I try not to look at sculpture as an object but as a painting the viewer can physically interact with in space. Being able to physically touch something or have it block and alter your path provides an element of danger and excitement and you can explore more nontraditional options of presentation. So seeing sculpture through the lens of painting I approach it the same way. I build all things with a loose idea and eventually intuition and problem solving take over the process. True painting for me will never be a mechanical, robotic procedure or an execution of perfect craft. I build things in a way that allows room for error. Oftentimes the solutions for plans that have gone awry are more interesting than the original plans. An artwork is a patchwork of all the questions we manage to answer and the questions we are incapable of answering.

S.M. : I have a psychological, or sociological question for you. Will you speak to interior vs. exterior worlds for your work? Maybe emotionally they differ, or socially, in domestic vs. public, maybe in fiction vs. reality? I am getting to this question from reading a line from painter Alexis Pye, “collaging images creates an oeuvre of an inhabited world that does not pay attention to the outside world”.

R.A.C. : This question makes me think about the famous “Double Slit Experiment” in quantum physics, where first light, and later electrons, were passed through two slits in a frame that had light sensitive film acting as a filter behind the slit. The results were interference wave patterning that proved that the electrons could be in many possible places at once but only when the electrons were not observed at every stage of the pass through. The act of observing the electrons caused them to choose one location and that singular location is what I think of as our everyday reality or the exterior world. I think of the interior world of Forget Me Nots Land as one of the many possible realms of existence, but not everyone can land there like the electrons in the experiment. The process of gaining entry to FMNL is based on genetic coding or with the guidance of a psychopomp.  There are characters that have ties to our known earthly reality and there are characters that exist from other fictional places in the FMNL metaverse. FMNL acts more closely to a utopian realm at risk of being infected with ideology that plagues dystopian planes of existence.

 S.M. : Thank you, Roger. I can’t wait to see this collection of paintings together.

A World Apart will have its opening at Sheet Cake on Saturday, March 9. The work will be on display from March 9 through April 27, 2024, 405 Monroe Ave. Memphis, TN.

Sophia Mason is an artist, curator and writer in Memphis, TN.