by Niko Gonzalez
In local artist Skip Rohde’s painting “Pleasantville (A Modern Family),” a family of four poses before a picket fence with their rough collie lounging near their feet. Flowers are in bloom, and the clan’s mother-daughter duo are both donning their brightest summer dresses. Granted, much of the fabrics’ prints are covered by the bulletproof vest each member wears, not to mention the AR-15s clutched in their hands.
The painting, a commentary on America’s gun-crazed culture, is one of several works featured in Rohde’s upcoming exhibit, What May Be, on display at Pink Dog Gallery Friday, Aug. 26-Sunday, Sept. 25.
Describing his style as “Rockwell from hell,” Rohde adds that additional artists such as Jerome Witkin also informed his collection’s unique mixture of nostalgic pastiche and hard-hitting satire.
And while the issues confronted in the series raise difficult questions on topics such as war and gentrification, Rohde’s approach includes light touches of humor throughout, allowing moments of levity amid the horror.
‘Now and Then’
Interested in art from a young age, Rohde says he initially pursued painting as a major in the mid-’70s at a “crappy art school.” Underwhelmed by the program and institution, Rohde ultimately put down his palette and brush to earn a degree in engineering from Tennessee Tech University in 1977.
After graduating, Rohde enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where his interest in art resurfaced. Stationed for a time in Fort Meade, Md., he enrolled in night classes at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. Tasked to create a still life, Rohde’s piece, “Now and Then,” featured a Navy hat and old teddy bear.
A fellow student, he remembers, interpreted the piece as a commentary on war’s quieter destruction, separating enlisted parents from their children. “That made me more aware that people have insights into my work that I sometimes don’t,” he says. “And so if I can get [viewers’] insights, then I can learn something more about the work and in turn learn something about myself.”
Years later, while stationed in the Middle East, Rohde began sketching Afghan officials. The exercise turned into Faces of Afghanistan, a collection of 50 sketches now housed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
‘City on the Hill’
Upon retiring from the Navy in 1999, Rohde relocated to Asheville, where he earned a degree in fine arts in 2003 at UNC Asheville. He notes that his passion for painting portraits is directly linked to his time in Afghanistan. And despite the style’s financial hurdles — “painting people doesn’t sell as well [as landscapes],” Rohde explains — he’s kept at it throughout his evolution as a full-time artist.
But his focus, as displayed in his latest exhibit, also gravitates toward societal issues, such as aging, politics and war. What May Be, he says, is a cautionary tale that studies the present day as a way to anticipate the future state of the nation and world.
For locals, one of the most relevant pieces in the collection will likely be “City on the Hill.” At first glance, the skyscrapers looming in the distance appear to represent a city such as Los Angeles. But upon closer inspection, thanks in part to the highway signs near the work’s foreground, it becomes clear what viewers are staring at: Asheville’s potential future.
Like many of the other pieces featured in the exhibit, the painting urges local audiences to consider how the city’s current choices will make a lasting impact on future generations.
More broadly, the exhibit implores viewers to consider how inaction in the face of violence, mass shootings and war normalize antisocial and destructive behaviors.
Despite these severe interpretations, Rohde isn’t a complete pessimist about the state of the world.
“We’re in for a rough ride, but we could come out of it on the other side OK,” he says. What May Be is just one possibility of how things could turn out “if we don’t get our collective selves together,” the artist cautions.
WHAT: What May Be opening reception
WHERE: Pink Dog Gallery, 348 Depot St. Free.
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 26, 6-8 p.m. avl.mx/bxa