The painter's ongoing show at bridddge gallery invites audiences to distrust their senses—both in the clouds and the jaws of the beast

Life shows us, if nothing else, that our senses cannot be trusted: In the clouds, I see an angel where another sees a demon. Or, as painter Robert Roest says, the snarling dog “may just be yawning.”

Roest’s work is on view at bridddge gallery’s inaugural New York exhibition, I dont mind, if you forgive me, alongside that of professional skateboarder and artist Shawn Powers and Florida painter Motherseth. The group show features Roest’s series, Indoor feelings, and single-door kennels in your soul, which, like all his artwork, scrutinizes the interrelationship between perception and phenomena. Ultimately, it’s the conjunction of his philosophically-oriented disposition and his technical ability to produce hyperrealistic paintings that creates such arresting pieces.

In Roest’s practice, a realistic painting of a dog (or even a piece of cheese) mimicking a photo (a putatively ‘objective’ representation of reality) takes on a new meaning; an otherwise banal object is injected with significance. The artist’s latest series, Six paintings proving angels are really watching over us, is directly indicative of this approach: Everyday clouds become sites of illusory angels. These paintings insist on asking: Does the cloud, in taking on the form of an angel, remain just a cloud—or is it rendered something else? Is there some reality to the angel within the cloud? Or is this only our mind’s deception?

Crucially, Roest’s paintings refuse to answer.

Teddy Duncan Jr.: There is a lot of variance in your work. One exhibition is a series of slices of cheese (CASUS), another consists of paintings of angry dogs (Indoor feelings, and single-door kennels in your soul), and others are abstract, non-figurative art (Suck-Kissing Remora and the Sloughing of a Skin). Is there a common disposition that coheres them all? Or does each series have its own logic?

Robert Roest: Visually and stylistically, there is a lot of variation in my work. My ambition is that it can’t be pluriform enough. This is perhaps too ambitious, because it takes time to nail a style well. My ideas and pictures are often quite specific, so that it would only make sense to make a few of them. They won’t allow for stretching, to fill a lifelong career. I like to see my work as an ecosystem in which parts work together and other parts conflict.

The series have their own logic, visually as well as conceptually, but they fit within a larger conceptual landscape. I think they are all different perspectives to explore phenomena having to do with how our sense-perceptions relate to our minds and reality. I utilize all the styles’ art history, invented throughout the ages to explore these themes… I am aware of how general and unspecific this sounds, but the specificity can be found within the series.

Teddy: You’ve written that your work is critical of the self-assuredness of perception and reality. How do you use art, in a general sense, to explore this?

Robert: Have I written that? You could be right. Now that I think about it, my work itself isn’t critical of these things—but I am. I have mistakenly projected this criticism onto my paintings.

I am not so confident that paintings have the power to communicate critical notions. Text is usually better and clearer at that. Paintings communicate, often, what people feel like seeing in them, which comes naturally or instinctively, rather than willfully and intentionally. When I see paintings in a museum or on Instagram, they can appeal to me, attract me, grab my attention, but often, I don’t know what it really is about. Paintings often need the help of writing if the viewer wants to see what the painter intended. My work has a visual side—the painted picture—and a textual side. It’s two sides, but one coin. I think a good painting has value regardless of whether people understand what the artist intended, or what a painting really means. I, myself, need and love to get myself tangled up in these ideas to fuel my work. But I don’t have the slightest illusion that my paintings shed light on these themes for the viewer.

Teddy: What sparked your interest in perception, illusion, and representation? Are there other artists who influenced this approach?

Robert: Probably my inquisitive personality, and the conservative Calvinist Christian community I grew up in. In this religion, having the right view of what reality is a matter of life or death—a matter of eternal bliss or eternal damnation. Besides the extremity of this, to me, it’s ridiculous to expect human beings to form the right picture in their minds of how reality works—the right view of what we are, what the world is, and so forth. It is an extreme overestimation of what human beings are capable of. Our minds and senses are not interested in detecting truths about ourselves, but rather to form a picture that works for us.

Teddy: In the paintings on view at bridddge, you paint stills of dogs from videos and memes. Why did you choose what’s commonly perceived as a frightening’ moment—a snarling dog?

Robert: I just happened to imagine these kinds of images with my mind’s eye, as beautiful painted ugly pictures on a gallery wall. I chose to proceed because I wanted to see how it would work ‘for real’ in the physical part of reality, which we seem to share. By making it physical, I could share this thing I imagined with other people. Often, when I start a body of work, I don’t have big intentional choices. Without you consciously willing it, things and ideas just happen to appear in your mind. You can choose to give it physical form, or choose to keep them private in your mind, where it came from. Something grabs me for some reason, and when it keeps fascinating me, I start playing with it physically. In hindsight, I can often better see what this or that idea was about.

Teddy: On the series, you wrote: ‘If you penetrate deep enough into the jaws of the beast, you may realize, there is no beast.’ How do you contend with the ‘false beast’ of animality?

Robert: I was not referring to the animality of anything, really, but to how things can appear. When you dive deep into an appearance, and you go all the way, you may realize you’ve deceived yourself. But you only see after you penetrate deep into the jaws of that beast [that there] was no beast. In relation to these dog paintings, rather than being frightening, evil, or angry, they may just be yawning.

Teddy: Much of your artwork seems to examine human-imposed meaning through illusion, like your series that features clouds in the shape of angels. To you, is this perception ‘true’? What role does it play in human life?

Robert: Everything is, in a sense, true. All things have their own trueness—and this includes deception, illusion, and representation. I have an intuition that there are not a lot of things ultimately true, or absolutely true.

Teddy: Is this illusory perception somehow divine?

Robert: I don’t really know when it makes sense to call something divine. I know when it makes sense to call something red, or sweet, or exciting or heavy, or saddening, or deceptive, or beautiful—but I don’t know what I am saying if I call something divine.

These cloud-angels are maybe non-spiritual, and very down-to-earth. It fascinates me that these painted pictures of clouds, that remind us of angels, aren’t angels. They’re just paintings of clouds. Are angels waterdrops, arranged in certain ways in the sky? No one who believes in angels would think that. The dynamics between our senses, our minds, our emotions, and our mental states are very complex when it comes to these ‘spiritual clues’ in reality. It is far more likely they don’t mean anything in-and-of-themselves. But for a brief moment, we change our mental state by deceiving ourselves. That mental state is very real. The title of this series is: Six paintings proving angels are really watching over us. I’m going to make more than six paintings. Apparently, not all of them are going to prove something. The prime function of the mind is to deceive itself, I think, and that is as real as it gets with reality.