OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Charles E. Roberts III

from In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There, 2017. Video still.

CHARLES E. ROBERTS III's videos, photographs and sculptures seem to be coated in a shimmery, metallic wet rainbow. A consistent range of colors and textures—from slick and slimey body fluids to sparkly and glittery, crinkly plastic surfaces—create the sensation that his looped vignettes and video portraits all exist in the same world. . . a world which is not quite ours. Charles earned his BFA at The Art Institute of Boston in 1997. In 2017, his first solo show Oracles and Remains was on view at Show Boat Gallery, in conjunction with the 2nd Floor Rear Festival, and group show End of the World Part VII just closed at the Learning Machine in Chicago. He has screened his work at the Palace Film Festival (2015-2017) and exhibited at Zhou B Art Center, Naomi Fine Art and la Fundación del Centro Cultural del México. Charles lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Let’s start with the dominant aesthetic in your videos. How has your visual aesthetic evolved over the years?

Charles E. Roberts III: This aesthetic has its roots in my very first attempts at making video. I needed an inexpensive option to light some sets that I had built in my studio, and a friend suggested using floodlights and clamp fixtures. The hardware store’s selection of colored floodlights was a little too tempting as I had just watched a bunch of Mario Bava’s color films. I didn’t leave that store with a single standard bulb, just a bunch of red, yellow, blue and green. I experimented with this palette for a couple of years, eventually adding some purple, pink and amber along the way.

Wet and metallic surfaces seemed to have the most potential for harnessing all these colors, so I just tried to push it to an expressionistic extreme. Eventually everything and everyone was covered in some form of metallic paint or makeup. . . and lots of baby oil! Using a combination of silver, gold and bronze facilitated an even greater range of hues and temperatures within this very limited color palette.

still from The Temple Theater of the Gruesome King, Act One, 2012.

OPP: How does your aesthetic serve your conceptual interests?

CER: I’ve always been more interested in using light to describe surface as opposed to space. There isn’t a lot of room for the viewer to enter my videos but I hope there is plenty to touch. The colors may be overtly ethereal and the subjects near-mystical, but I always try to anchor everything with an intense tactility. The Oracles videos are a good example of this. They are radiant and mystical beings but they are also grimy and encrusted with the materiality of their surroundings. We are a lot like them!

After that series I felt that I had exhausted the use of metallics, only returning to them briefly in order to shoot an Eighth Oracle this past year. More recently I have been using white light, the colored floodlights tend to be set in the periphery and used more as accents. Things have gotten slimier though!

The Sixth Oracle, 2013. still from video loop.

OPP: Are you influenced by 1980s fantasy cinema? I see Legend, Labyrinth, The Beastmaster and The Dark Crystal.

CER: All of those movies were released and consumed countless times in my formative years, so I suppose they are the filter through which all subsequent influences must pass. The filmmakers that probably have had the most direct visual influence on me are Sergei Parajanov, Carmelo Bene, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell, Jan Svankmajer and some of Fellini’s earlier color films. The surrealist Czech films of the 60s and 70s are definitely a big influence. I also love a lot of the production design and special effects in silent films like Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, Murnau’s Faust, Lang’s Die Nibelungen. . . and L’Inferno, an incredible adaptation of Dante’s Inferno from 1911!

OPP: Any other visual influences?

CER: My background is actually in painting and drawing. I spent a lot of time as a young, and not so young, adult immersed in the tomes of art history. Gustav Moreau, William Blake, Francisco Goya, El Greco, Caravaggio, Albrecht Durer and probably the whole of the northern Renaissance probably loom more profoundly in my imagination than motion pictures. Children’s book illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak are some other early but unshakable influences on my visual vocabulary. Folklore, fairytales and mythology have also been a constant inspiration.

The Garden, 2014. Sound by Omar Padrón

OPP: Recent short videos like Last Kiss, Heal me, my darling and pink nail polish (I Can Never Go Home Again), all from 2016, seem to be vignettes that might be part of a larger narrative. Is this case? What’s the relationship between these individual works?

CER: These three videos actually have the most direct link to any fantasy films of the 1980s though they are a more recent influence. There was a genre of Hong Kong and Southeast Asian horror films around that decade dealing in a lot witchcraft and black magic. The gore and special effects in those films was by no means realistic, but it was highly imaginative, colorful and often truly repulsive. I thought it would be interesting to apply these outrageous aesthetics to some very intimate human scenarios. Maybe a kiss, a massage and a comedown could take on more mythical proportions and suggest a multitude of fantastical narratives. I also really wanted to play with scale. All three videos are shot in close-up and are incredibly claustrophobic in their framing, but the detailed makeup and prosthetics potentially suggest an epic landscape in motion.

The response to these videos is often “I can’t wait to see the finished piece!” Initially I was a little embarrassed and disheartened by these reactions but in the end I have to see this as some kind of success. If the viewer anticipates something beyond what I’ve given them, I’m probably doing something right.

pink nail polish (I Can Never Go Home Again), 2016. Music by Michael Perkins. Featuring April Lynn.

OPP: I’ve only seen your videos on the internet. What’s the ideal viewing space for your videos? What about scale?

CER: I definitely prefer most of my video to be viewed as loops on monitors, installed in a gallery or some public space. I’m not that interested in the captive audience of a screening or the inclination to continually move on to the next thing that occurs when we watch things via the internet.

Last Kiss, Heal me, my darling and pink nail polish are all intended to be viewed as continuous loops. When viewed online or at a screening the “second half” of the video is actually just the first half in reverse. This edit allows for the video to be seamlessly looped when displayed in its preferred context. I like to think of them as infinite moments that a potential viewer could walk away from, return to over and over again. . . or even just ignore if they weren’t interested. Maybe they are a little more like painting or illustration in that way.

Though I've been impressed with seeing a number of my videos projected on a larger scale I still prefer them to be viewed on monitors. I love that quality of the illumination coming from within, like stained glass in reverse. The Oracles especially benefit from this format, in fact it’s really the only way to experience them. They were all shot in such a way that the monitor that they are displayed on needs to be installed vertically.

from In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There, 2017. Video still.

OPP: You have a section of video stills from an in-progress project that you’ve been working on since 2011. When will In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There be complete? What’s the overarching narrative? Has it changed over the years?

CER: I started this project in 2011, and it was initially intended to be a very short piece. After shooting the bulk of the live action material I started experimenting with some stop motion sequences. I was having too much fun composing and animating all these muddy landscapes with various branches, twigs, leaves, bones and skulls. I amassed an almost unmanageable amount of material and eventually put it aside to work on some projects that might have more immediate results. I didn’t return to In the Heart of the Wood until the spring of 2016. I edited continuously and even shot some more stop motion sequences over the course of about nine months. Again, I do not have any specific narrative in mind. The whole thing seems to be shaping up to be a sort of ambiguous folkloric fantasia that takes place in the haunted forests of my youth. I’ve yet again had to set this project aside to prepare for some shows and attend to some other muses. I’m not sure when it will be finished but there is definitely some thematic and aesthetic crossover with the piece that I am working on now. In fact, one might even consider my current project a more sexually charged Dark Crystal!

from Garbage Forests, 2014.

OPP: Well, now you have to tell us about that!

CER: A couple of years ago I was working on a series of photos under the working title of the Garbage Forests. I used a lot of repurposed latex Halloween masks, ratty wigs, plastci flowers, holiday decorations encrusted with mud, glitter and foraged urban flora. This is basically going to be a series of short videos with performers bringing all this stuff to life. Right now I'm building the costumes and prosthetics for a masturbating mushroom goblin and a woodwose murdering witch. It's sort of a confrontation between childhood and adolescence.

To see more of Charles' work, please visit charleseroberts3.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled  Where Do We Go From Here?