Metanoia: an interview with James Roper
Interview by Charlotte Beale
Metanoia means to change your mind in Greek. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung used the term metanoia to describe the function of a mental ‘breakdown’, during which the psyche destroys itself in order to heal, creating a new, more stable identity in doing so.
James Roper created the Metanoia series as he overcame a period of depression. The work represents the process of alchemy which Roper sees as crucial to recovery. Metanoia is vital to how he makes his art.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”, Jung wrote.
“In many spiritual practices”, Roper adds, “you go through a dark night of the soul to discover the light on the other side”.
“I’ve had to change who I am in order to overcome depression. It was a process of alchemy. In going through depression and coming out the other side, you don’t necessarily get rid of your old self - you reformulate it into something new. You realise that what was dragging you down can be turned into something powerful, and might be the very thing that is going to help you.”
The gold throughout the Metanoia series alludes to such alchemy. Roper long knew gold would have a place in the work.
“When I’m coming up with new work, I don’t know exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing. Then I look back and think - it’s so obvious why I put gold in, it’s to do with alchemy.”
This is typical of Roper’s practice of self-analysis. While he works intuitively, it can take months before he is able to reveal to himself why he chose a particular symbol or motif.
The sunsets and sunrises of the Metanoia paintings also suggest the shifting state of the series’ title. Roper frequently uses the sky as a background.
“It gives the sense of looking beyond, looking further than normal reality. I've always liked Spielberg films, because they're set in suburbia, but they bring an alien element into that normality. They shift what ‘normal’ life is.”
“That's what I want to do, by showing our everyday sky, but showing something magical beyond that. Space is beyond sky. There's more to see.”
The psychology of seeing has always interested Roper. He wants viewers to be not quite sure what they’re experiencing, to have their mind try to grasp onto what they think they see. He likens this to the way he works, in not being able to discern why he has created what he has until after he has finished.
Roper wants his work to invoke synesthesia within the viewer, a response in which senses are simultaneously perceived. A colour may evoke a sound in one’s mind, or a collection of forms elicit an emotion. For Roper, who experiences synesthesia himself, memory also plays a role in this mixed sensory response. He is always trying to make a feeling visual when he paints. He hopes the viewer can share in that, to feel more than what they observe in front of them.
“I want the viewer to see something, then feel something in response that invokes an emotional memory.”
Paradolia is another visual response of which Roper makes use. It is the human tendency to recognise a pattern in random information, such as seeing the shape of an elephant in clouds. Evolutionary psychologists argue that when escaping predators or hunting prey, seeing false positives - overestimating threats - was more helpful to us than the opposite. Roper’s technique of layering collages of figurative imagery takes advantage of this sensitivity, suggesting to us images that we can’t quite grasp.
In The 10 Principles of Art, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran includes ‘peak shift’. Peak shift describes how our brain is hyperactivated by exaggerated depictions of real forms, such as caricatures. If we see a photo of a person and then a caricature of that same person, our brain responds more strongly to the caricature.
“This is happening in society in general. J.G. Ballard called it the ‘death of affect’. We’re bored by real stuff. We need amplified versions in order to be stimulated.”
In his work, Roper capitalizes on peak shift by using form and colour in a way that’s “not natural”, using complementary colours so they jar against each other. These jarring colours and hyper-exaggerated forms shock the viewer’s senses, jolting them into to a questioning “beginner’s mind”.
“In Zen”, says Roper, “the term beginner’s mind, refers to seeing things afresh. Everything is new in the moment”.
These motifs also ensure the work touches the viewer’s emotions, not just their thoughts. For Roper, a painting offers a “window into freedom” - an alternative way of thinking about reality. Giving the viewer’s mind different forms and colours than it is used to can help open that window.
“I’m constantly bridging that gap. I try to attract people with the superficiality, so they come over into the depth. The surface is a gateway. People can step beyond it. That’s what I enjoy - encouraging different perspectives. I think we need them in a world that’s so often obsessed with the surface.”
Unlike adverts and popular culture that manipulate peak shift simply to attract people to a product, Roper’s art aims to hook people in, with the hope they’ll linger to create their own meaning through the clues he leaves to “something deeper and deeper”.
Striking that balance entails juggling beauty and meaning. Beauty alone can make art lack deeper connection, while an artwork of pure meaning can be dry, without aesthetic pleasure. But beauty with meaning can create imagery that resonates with people’s hearts as well as their minds.
What meaning does Roper want people to take in, once he has attracted them with peak shift? Our attraction to peak shift states reveals an urge to feel more satiated by life, Roper thinks, as we were during periods when we were more sensually connected to our planet. His Metanoia series takes us to the times of day - dawn and dusk - when our senses are heightened, and we are more susceptible to nature. Now, we get our sensual input from TV and computers.
“Society is not quite working for all of us, so we’re looking to ancient ways to connect again.”
If art is the conduit for such connection, then the artist is the shaman, says Roper. In tribal society, the shaman acted as a figure on the outside, looking in and asking us to question. But contemporary society lacks such a figurehead.
“Artists serve that function, but they’re not doing it in the way it was done before, to connect the tribe. At the moment, the artist is an individual who expresses him or herself. People can connect with that, and maybe with each other in relation to it, but it’s more about entertainment than a deeper understanding of self.”
Roper wants to use his art to stretch people’s consciousness. Religion, including shamanic rituals, used to give people a sensual experience. Incense, songs, fires, paintings, music and readings were used to seduce people into a state in which their consciousness could be altered.
“Certain states can change our consciousness so we can think differently. We spend every day thinking in a very specific way, and we almost never change that. But through art, we can. It can change the way we think and feel, to expand on a sense of who we are.”
Roper’s work also posits a return to ancient ideas of beauty.
“In our society, beauty can appear quite superficial. There are of course deeper reasons why we are attracted to superficial things. But beauty lacks the symbolism it used to have.”
“On a daily basis, we see adverts that feature images of female beauty. Their sole purpose is to sell us consumer products. But when someone in ancient Greece saw an image of female beauty, such as a sculpture of the Greek goddess Aphrodite or a painting of Athena, there would have been multiple layers of meaning and narrative augmenting their experience of it.”
“The logos we see now mean very little, except brand identity. But if you were in a Scottish clan, you would have had tartan and heraldry with symbols of rich intrinsic meaning. Those images, patterns and colours would have spoken so deeply and emotionally to you. You would have fought and died for them.”
“In today’s society, we’re trying to do the same thing with augmented reality and technology. We’re trying to overlay information. But it’s lacking that greater meaning, that emotional connection.”
Through his work, Roper invites viewers into a world of symbol and myth, and encourages them to create their own.
“I want my work to become almost personal to the viewer. When I look at my work, it means a lot to me. I want people to have that same experience, but using their own symbols and narratives - creating their own work, in a sense, through their own interpretation of it.”
This process is similar to how although the shaman takes individuals through the ritual, the experience those individuals have doesn’t come from the shaman - it comes from within.
Roper looks forward as well as back, and would like to work with virtual reality in the future. But he wants any virtual experience to give a viewer more than just a feeling of “otherness”, and instead become personal to them.
“If there isn’t depth and connection beyond the ‘wow factor’ of the virtual reality experience, the work would lack a vital dimension.”
“We can move forward too quickly these days, leaving the past behind. But the past is our roots, our grounding. My work is futuristic and looks beyond the horizon, but it’s also deeply connected with our roots, our past, the earth.”
The world is now both so huge and so small, it’s hard to get a sense of who we are and where we are. Connecting directly to our local environment can help us resonate more with our planet and our roots in it. The rocks in the foreground of the Metanoia series keep the material world close.
In seeking more fulfilling connection, people are realising that technology’s promise to give us anything and everything we want is not actually what we want, Roper thinks.
“The things that define our existence are resistance and suffering. They make life what it is. We can’t get everything from virtual experience and expect to be satiated by it.”
“People are realising this, even in terms of doing CrossFit and Tough Mudder-style endurance runs instead of going to the gym. These things feel more visceral, more real.”
Roper was awarded his black belt in kung fu in 2014.
“It was torture at points. I was thinking, why am I doing this? But I feel more alive doing it than I do watching films about kung fu.”
Part of Roper’s depression was about not fitting in or being on the same wavelength as other people, which made him feel lonely. This offered him an outsider’s perspective, similar to that of the shaman, on the things that now connect (or disconnect) everyone else.
Our culture has become top-heavy with visual, passive experiences, Roper thinks. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of experiences, but when there’s too much of them, we can become unbalanced and unhealthy. Roper doesn’t want to push away the superficial or entertaining dimension to his art, but to balance it with a deeper meaning.
“I think as an artist, because you’re constantly looking at things askew, slightly differently, and always questioning, you experience a kind of multi-layered state all the time.”
This cultural moment is about “creating holes in the fabric so we can peer through”, Roper says.
“Then that new way of thinking is fed back into the culture and becomes the norm. Someone has to come along and question it again. I think this is the responsibility of the artist.”
Many of these new ways of thinking now revolve around reviewing old experiences.
“People are looking at history and asking: what was the female point of view on all this? The past is becoming broader, because we’re looking at it from different viewpoints, discovering more things.”
“A lot of art is good when it only questions, because it gives you room to breathe and find answers. But as an artist, I’m also trying to give answers.”
Many artists stay away from giving answers because they think it’s too definitive. But in creating his work, Roper is always finding answers, and he wants to impart them, whether through his art or by talking about it. He increasingly sees his work as including any discussion of it, as well as wider exposure of himself and his other interests, including martial arts.
“I used to put the work between me and the viewer, but now I’m starting to say, I am part of that work. In order to understand the work, you have to understand me.”
Roper publishes videos of his kung fu practice on social media. He began martial arts ten years ago so he could feel the energy and flow in his body that he has always expressed in his art.
“Now the energy is flowing back into my work and becoming one process. I understand it a lot better, because I’m not just thinking it, I’m feeling it in my body and emotionally connecting to it.”
There’s a Japanese saying that calligraphers can only truly understand their form once they have a black belt in martial arts.
“You can’t feel flow through the pen if you can’t feel flow in your body.”
Roper connects his increasing engagement with social media to his love of the baroque. In baroque art, the work never stops at the edge of the canvas. It always goes beyond, over-extending into a theatrical form. Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a favourite of Roper’s. It sits in a shrine in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria, framed by sculpted golden rays.
“In baroque art, what’s around it is as important as the individual piece itself. In a way, I’m doing that now, showing how my work goes beyond itself to who I am, and beyond me to how I can connect with the viewer more.”
Nevertheless, the framework of the canvas has been instrumental in allowing Roper this freedom.
“I’ve always done work within the square of the canvas. I’ve tried to push it as much as possible, but always within a structure. I’ve always wanted one step in the past and one in the future.”
“I want to connect with as big an audience as possible. If you go too far into the new or conceptual, you can leave people behind. You lose a sense of meaning and beauty, and the work evolves into a kind of nihilism.”
“I’m all for doing new things, but I keep coming back to traditions.”