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Into The Westnorth

Roycrosse Wants to Bring All Kinds of Art Lovers to Station North

Frank Klein
A THING FOR ALLONETHING: Westnorth Studio's Roycrosse.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 5/14/2008

Gotta Have Art

May 17

Westnorth Studio--housed in a stately 5,000-square-foot rowhouse in Station North--is not, upon first inspection, the most inviting public space to display art. Its owner, a multimedia artist who prefers to go by the condensation of his first and last names, roycrosse, suggests that this may be because it is, like Baltimore, an atypical place for art.

"All the studios I've had except for this one have been loft spaces," he says. "These are the kind of spaces I've been drawn to, because my palette is fairly wide-ranging."

Roycrosse, who moved here in 2002, has lived in a number of artsy neighborhoods all over North America, from the warehouse district around Toronto's Niagara Street to the cheap rental spaces of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Prospect Park and Cambridge, Mass. Roycrosse is originally from Trinidad, as his slight trace of Caribbean accent attests, and after six years in Baltimore, he is just starting to come out of his shell.

A recent show at the opening of the North Avenue Market, a new arts venue down the block from Westnorth, was curated by roycrosse, and the artist now has several site-specific works of his own on display to the public in his studio. This weekend, the marketing organization behind the Station North Arts and Entertainment District hosts Gotta Have Art festival, which brings together the arts destinations along North Avenue, including Load of Fun and Westnorth; roycrosse, who was the festival's head curator in 2007, is again helping out this year.

"Wherever I've lived, I've always taken part," roycrosse says. "There has to be some kind of reciprocity with a place. You can't just pay your rent or your mortgage and go. . . . I'm personally hoping for a larger public participation [in Gotta Have Art], to take it from being a door-to-door tour, and having businesses and people interested enough to maybe sponsor an installation, so that it appeals to a much larger regional audience. . . . We want to bring people, not just tourists, but dedicated art lovers, dealers, and agents, and build this into a bona fide art event of regional value. We're still at the district level."

Roycrosse's own artworks are not immediately evident as works of mass appeal. They are slightly esoteric think pieces that are, for the most part, visually arresting and abstract. The vivid colors on his multimedia collages scream off of their canvases with indistinct voices. His sculptures, patched together from a variety of materials, require explanation, and once explained, they bring into play all kinds of provocative cultural associations. They're exactly the kind of pieces that require exhibition in spaces that attract "dedicated art lovers" who are looking for stimulation.

Take, for example, roycrosse's "American Gothic" series, which he started in the late '90s. Most of the works in the series are "fetishes," or totemic sculptures patched together from bits of metal, solid-looking dark woods, and other media such as fabric and nails.

"It started as a series of what I call `power objects' that looked at the way people celebrate nature," roycrosse says.

The pieces have evolved. What began as nature-worship now more resemble skyscrapers, large shiny obelisks more technological than natural, and which, because they were produced largely before the events of Sept. 11, wield a powerful message: We set these things up, at great expense of effort, pride, and money, only that they should be knocked down.

"Contemporary American architecture is about putting up large, impressive structures, because it's a way of expressing power and might," roycrosse says. "Later on, that would be borne out by 9/11. Those towers became a symbol of American power."

Roycrosse takes on American power again in "Wailing Wall," a large, site-specific work composed of long, braided strings of fabric that form a curtain against one wall of the studio. Beneath the hanging braids, roycrosse has arranged photos of coffins and corpses connected to Iraq, with a printed message about the war's brutality and wastefulness. Roycrosse says that the act of braiding fabric is very therapeutic, and that his work is a statement against the Bush administration's refusal to allow Americans to heal properly from the war's wounds by suppressing images of soldiers' coffins and de-emphasizing the number of dead.

"The Wailing Wall is a place to stand and bawl your head off, to express your vexations," he says. "I think it's unfortunate that after scores of years of what we call civilization, and all kinds of technology to communicate and solve problems, the fundamental way of solving our human conflicts has not changed. We still depend on a guy with a big fucking stick."

The rest of the work on display in roycrosse's studio, which also doubles as his home, is no less intriguing. A score of abstract multimedia collages that present bright, engaging globs of color in print, cardboard, graphite, and paint is what has occupied most of roycrosse's time lately. roycrosse recently completed another of his fetishes, a commissioned work called "Fetish for Venus," with wood carved in sloping, gentle angles that suggest a Bantu mask, and spattered with metal brads in a busy pattern that looks like a crust of jewels. These are more technical exercises in shape and shade, and the impression they give, more than anything, is one of balance and stillness, rather than conflict or hot-running emotion.

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