Tribute: Roger Kemp

‘Squaring the circle’ – ‘rhythmic structure’ – ‘cosmic configuration’ – ‘astronomical possibilities’ … Roger Kemp spoke another language – it was his language – and he tried to explain it to us.

It was very complex. It seemed to be about his concept of an enigmatic cosmic order that had a structure which he was constantly developing in his paintings. It was very difficult to comprehend.

Sometimes he would try to explain by drawing a gestural circle and crossing it, making various diagonal lines on his diagram – then, pausing to show the significance of certain line formations.

If you showed any interest he was patient in explaining it to you – and he seemed to assume that you were there with him. However, if you were struggling to understand, he would stop, give a puzzled look, then say – ‘alright, let’s go back to square one’. It was most intriguing.

One evening, I happened to be alone with Roger and I thought it was an opportunity to talk to him without any distractions and try to understand where he was coming from. I had asked him if he would make a few comments about a recent painting of his. Roger obliged, and we sat and we sat and talked for several hours – actually Roger talked, and I listened as he hesitatingly opened up – then, as he warmed to his theme he expanded and became more self assured, as his stream of abstractions started to pour out. He had lift off.

At the end – although I did not comprehend it all – I realised that there was a constant and personal logic there. I began to sense that this abstracted world of his seemed like a sanctuary which shielded him from his past realities – as Roger would never talk about his past or earlier times to anyone, even to close friends. The past for him was a landscape of fog and uncertainty – and he had stepped out of it.

His fantastic visions and his symbolic language that he wrestled with were wrought of the present. His present, where he was creating his personal cosmic world.

Essentially, I believe Roger’s language was a form of poetry – describing his metaphysical and abstracted cosmos. At times, standing in front of these massive and powerful paintings with their cruciforms and circles, one could almost hear the echo of his words. It became clear to me that it was impossible to unravel any clearly logical meaning from his recitations – you could only be fascinated.

It was always interesting to see how people responded to his theories – some feigned understanding, some were left in nodding silence, and some, feeling intimidated, would utter feeble-minded responses.

I remember a time when at a cocktail party in South Yarrra I saw Roger sitting on a sofa next to a man who he soon engaged in conversation. I was standing nearby and could hear Roger slowly unwinding his theories to the stranger. The man listened politely, as Roger was becoming more emphatic as he explained his views on the universe. Finally, he was interrupted when drinks were offered, and this broke up Roger’s stream of thought. Later, when he was formally introduced to his patient listener, he turned out to be a leading Professor of Astronomy … who in turn said, ‘you know, he’s got something there’.

In his later years, Roger became more outgoing, enjoying the company of other artists and taking part in various activities – including the annual cricket match between the artists and writers at St Andrews that George Baldessin and Les Kossatz arranged. And on one occasion, he even went along to a ‘footy match’ at the bleak and cursed Waverley ground where you stood on the rise in the ‘outer’ watching the players slug it out. But not Roger – he had turned around and was facing all the contorted faces bellowing at the players and the umpires.

Obviously, Roger did have a different world view to the rest of us. He had that compulsive energy that drove him to keep making these large and muscular paintings and drawings – right up until he was too ill to continue. His huge body of work over his lifetime made other painters seem precious and lazy.

Some time after Roger had died (he passed away in 1987), I went to Sandringham to see Merle – Roger’s wife – to see how she was coping. Walking into the house was like entering a labyrinthian maze of paintings and drawings – with each room, passage and corridor stacked with so much work that you had to shuffle your way through to get to the kitchen – and even there, Roger’s work was creeping in. Merle was sitting at the table smoking cigarettes and absent-mindedly dropping ash around the floor – which quietly terrified me at the thought of a ‘Roger bonfire’.

But all around the house, and even in the studio, you could not avoid the feeling of melancholy – where the action had stopped – and the paintings and rolls of paper stood silent. Finally on leaving, I could not resist looking back once more and for a moment I thought I heard Roger’s voice – ‘squaring the circle’ – ‘cosmic configuration’ – ‘rhythmic structure’ – ‘back to square one’ – all echoing in my head as I drove away.  

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 48, 2019

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