Today, painter Aubrey Roemer joins us for our interview series Five Alive. I met Aubrey at a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and right after leaving the residency, Aubrey had plans to go work on ambitious public art projects in Nicaragua and Indonesia. She is currently still on a boat in Indonesia, and she describes both of these amazing and intense projects below the interview.
Aubrey Roemer is a visual artist, whose work incorporates painting, photography, printmaking, installation, and performance. There is a strong focus on materials within the work, often using found and repurposed items – such as linens, bedsheets, dinner napkins, and old candles. The raw materials are tailored to each project, using a given object’s context to reinforce the conceptual nature of the artwork.
Her work centers around portraiture and the representational, but touches into abstraction in it’s execution. The artist often uses community as a platform for creation – depicting the employees of a strip club, painting the people of an entire town, photographing houses along one road, etc. In this regard, there are facets of journalism, anthropology, and socio-economics found within the work.
Aubrey Roemer was born in Rochester, NY. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute. She has had residencies in Europe and Indonesia, and exhibited in galleries and museums both nationally and internationally.
What is your favorite art making tool?
I am secretly a (color) writer, so color, in all mediums.
What music/band/artist are you listening to the most right now?
Music is all over the place: old Future Islands, a little Tom Waits, bombastic classical music, dark country tunes that hark to True Detective, and two new bands other artists put me on to—Darkside and The Acid. Oh, and this band from Florida: Holopaw.
Where do you go for peace and quiet?
The ocean, the big beautiful ocean. No matter how intense my life may or may not feel, the ocean is more vast than I will ever be. I find this soothing.
Where is your next dream travel destination?
The Philippines—I want to do a portrait study of the bakla, i.e. trans/gay culture there. Although Africa and India are calling my name, too.
Is there a color or palette that you are drawn to?
Really depends on the project. I am most known for the blue and white palette that was Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project. Yet, I try to pair the colors of each project to resonate with the demographic I am attempting to depict.
Aubrey recently completed a huge project in Nicaragua, which she describes here:
This January in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, in collaboration with La Isla Foundation, I have documented via painted portraiture, the Chronic Kidney Disease epidemic among the sugarcane workers in this region in a work titled ‘Empalagoso (Saccharine).’ There is a staggering mortality rate among the male workforce population from this disease, which is thought to be caused from a combination of dehydration, strenuous labor conditions, and environmental toxins.
Painting in and around Chichigalpa, including the small community of La Isla, which is referred to as “La Isla de las Viudas” (“The Island of Widows”) - a name reflecting the reality of life where many men are dying young, leaving behind their families. Images of entire families affected by CKDnT are depicted on cloth banners formerly used to protest the worker’s conditions. These banners adorned with portraits were then returned to be used in protest once again and installed in the sugarcane fields during the many stages of harvest. A series of memorial portraits have been created of those who lost their lives to CKDnT, which were installed alongside the banners, and are going to be exhibited at Schema Projects in Brooklyn, NY. These commemorative works will be installed again in a mass installation in late fall this year in Chichigalpa. After this final installation, all of the portraits will be given to the surviving family members. Each banner and portrait has a ghostly secondary monoprint that was creating in the process of painting, which are exhibited and installed with the mother images.
The work was driven and facilitated by members of the community, La Isla Foundation, the scientific and medical research of many dedicated to intervention and advocacy for this disenfranchised group of workers. Additionally, the photographs were taken by filmmaker and photojournalist Tom Laffay, who worked with Ed Kashi on National Geographic’s video ‘Under Cane.’ Laffay, Kashi, and I will exhibit the work in ‘Facing An Epidemic,’ which is set to travel through the USA, the EU, later returning to it’s home in Central America. In touring the work, there is hope to educate members of the consumer culture to the devastating costs of sugar production in an increasingly global world. We are striving to make a new and replicable model that explores intersection of art and journalism, while collaborating and engaging in current global issues.
Currently, Aubrey is on a boat in Indonesia working on a new project:
After a residency in 2013 in Bali where I met master painter Wolfgang Widmoser, a student of Ernst Fuchs and Salvador Dali, we decided to reunite and film something about art and make art together in the future. In 2014, Widmoser connected with enterprenuer Britta Slippens, owner of many tradtional phinisi boats and Mentigi Bay Villas, which Widmoser was the architect of, and it was decided we would travel with other artists and paint the Buginese culture—indigenous sea faring folk from Indonesia. We traveled with other artists Ebon Heath, Orly Even, Angelina Cristina, Icarus Zaure, and the film crew Slam Jam Brothers. All artists are making work about the culture and the respective journey throught he remote islands of Eastern Indonesia.
I had personally planned on painting just the Buginese in a similar fashion to other projects, using sails from their traditional phinisi as the canvas. However, on the first day of traveling through Sulawesi and meeting with Bugi anthropologist, Horst Liebner, we learned that it was not so easy to find Bugis and that our perception of their culture was inaccurate. The Bugis are tied by language, not by custom, and as we traveled further through the islands we began to understand that the idea of a Bugi as a shipbuilder and a pirate was driven from colonialism and a degree of ethnocentric view points from imperialists and within in the respective Indonesian culture. Bugis came to be an all inclusive and simultaneous mystery term. Through this trip, we met many people and very few Bugis, in fact, when we asked where to find the Bugi men (ha ha) the response was always pointing to the next island or a previous island.
With this knowledge, I have decided to continue painting portraits, but under the guise of an Indonesian portrait project in search of the Bugi. As a result, this has presented exciting creative challenges, as one must adapt. Instead, I choose to collect hands from those living on the various islands—an homage to the cave paintings we saw outside of Makassar, which have been recently claimed as the oldest paintings on planet earth along with another cave in Spain. Seeing those paintings, perched in a cave on a mountain top was exhilarating! You had to observe the work from a distance, while knowing that you were perched on an impossibly high precipice— -my heart pounding and my brow sweating. It was really something. The community participation in this activity of painting harks to the very beginning of the cannon of art history. On top of the hands, images of the animals we saw or hunted or ate are being rendered, along with animals meaningful to Bugi culture—the bison, the crocodile, the rooster. The other side of the sail is being encrypted with text from La Galigo, the Bugi creation myth—6,000 pages of text that make up one of the greatest sagas of all time. There will be 44, a magical number for the Bugis, portraits laid on top of the text. While not exactly a straight forward Buginese portrait project, the work has evolved into weaving stories of a great lost culture, with a shared adventure, and historical references to the knowledge garnered along the way.