We They, We TheyJuly 14, 2010
“We They, We They” at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MOCFA) is Clare Rojas’ first solo museum exhibition in San Francisco. A significant step forward in the career of this prolific, internationally acclaimed artist, the show includes a salon-style installation of paintings on paper and panel that employ Rojas’ graphic gouache finesse; numerous immersive murals that also exhibit her signature style; and a handful of videos that introduce an irreverent and contemporary inflection to Rojas’ generally vintage aesthetic. Exhibiting at this particular venue positions Rojas’ work within a surprisingly resonate folk art discourse. The effect is simultaneously unexpected and effective—updating folk art and connecting her contemporary practice to a long lineage of homespun makers.
“We They, We They” is an unprecedented collaboration between MOCFA and Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, which hosted an iteration of the same show earlier this year. The U.S. version has enjoyed impressive and widespread auxiliary support from a range of local individuals and art institutions including Ann Hatch, Ratio 3, and Rojas’ San Francisco dealer Paule Anglim. This widespread local support underscores the significant place Rojas occupies in the Bay Area art scene as one of the seminal figures of the urban rustic art movement that has been internationally marketed as the “Mission School.” Her valorized position within contemporary practice makes this exhibition at MOCFA a show that benefits both the museum and the artist in markedly different ways.
Rojas’ work makes surprising sense within a folk art context. Not only do her meticulous, crisp-edged renderings evoke stoic virtues and folkloric oddities from a mythic past, but they also connect richly textured material traditions, ranging from Baltic wood carving to American quilt piecing. More importantly, Rojas’ artworks are just one facet of a complex amalgam that includes her collaborations with other artists as well as her musical career, in which she performs under the moniker Peggy Honeywell. This multifaceted output constitutes a broad cultural creativity that is truly a living folk art practice. This often-overlooked aspect of Rojas’ creative oeuvre is nicely emphasized in the exhibition, which included a performance by Rojas as Peggy Honeywell at its opening reception. By embracing Rojas’ work, MOCFA has effectively and advantageously expanded folk art’s boundaries to include critically acclaimed contemporary practices like Rojas’.
The included painted works and murals engage many of the tropes for which Rojas is noted, but also mark a significant departure from concerns that shaped her early career.
Gone are the overt feminist evocations of confrontation and empowerment; instead, her works depict a historically inflected, potential future rather than a position of active resistance. Her cryptic—at times violent—creepiness is still present, but it resolves into a dark Slavic tone that suggests the fairy tales about Baba Yaga and her house on chicken feet more than contemporary narratives deploring misogynistic violence.
Its vision carries a weighty tone steeped in ancient traditions, but equally espouses an optimistic vision filled with the kind of rough-edged nationalistic pride expressed by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass: “Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves.”1
The videos in the exhibition expand upon and complicate the stylized, geometric, quilt-like spaces of Rojas’ murals and works on paper and panel. Two animations that desecrate copies of Marie Claire magazine poke fun at the excess of fashion and luxury commerce by introducing the abject specter of death into the plastic world of the glossy spreads. Although at times little more than juvenile scatological jokes, the animations’ subversive humor evokes the comic transgressions of Robert Crumb and lingers longer than the more disturbing moments. The Peggy Honeywell music video, included in the same loop with the animations, surreally juxtaposes a bluegrass tune against the nauseating consumption of a keg party. America’s current crude cultural overindulgence is hard to ignore as beer-guzzling slobs discordantly rock out to Honeywell’s plaintively quaint song. Together, the music video and animations present the state of the world that Rojas actively combats through her work. Faced with such stark evidence of our cultural bankruptcy, one can’t help wondering how things got this bad.
The exhibition’s most significant weakness is the safe and unnecessary segregation of its various elements. The small painted works hang in a crowd on one side of the exhibition; the murals fill the rest of the space, with the animations and music video playing in a loop on a single monitor. The presentation feels overly tame—opting for straightforward legibility rather than maximum impact. As a result, many of the connections between these elements are muffled. For example, the installation makes it difficult to discover that fragments contained in some of the small gouache works are directly reproduced and expanded in portions of the large murals. I found myself wishing to see more of the kind of uncertain blending that occurred in Margaret Kilgallen’s installations, in which preexisting works combined with site specific wall paintings to create a single cohesive whole. Rojas has produced such magically coordinated exhibitions in the past; I wish that this rather impressive outing had more of that unexpected alchemy.