Jan. 2012--All the earnest art historical writing about Duchamp’s breakthrough appropriation art often overlooks the obvious humor in presenting a urinal in a gallery. Artist Ry Rocklen doesn’t downgrade the potty-humor part of the great legacy by the Grandfather of contemporary installation art. Instead Rocklen carries on the tradition of puckish social commentary with his cheeky re-use of discarded objects from the streets, dumps, or thrift stores.
In collaboration with Sue de Beer, Rocklen is producing an installation in Marfa, Texas for "Nothing Beside Remains," created through LAND, the Los Angeles Nomadic Division. Rocklen's contribution to "Nothing Beside Remains" is a new commission entitled "Search for Ironed Curtain" consisting of custom-made fabrics hung in Marfa's store-windows to create a composite "painting" when viewed from the Presidio County Courthouse turret. The work spans across the town and relates to "Second to None," Rocklen's assemblage of discarded trophies installed at 121 North Highland Avenue.
Here, we discuss the serious task of making witty work.
Ry Rocklen, Second to None (detail), 2011, Trophies, trophy parts, wood, 94.5 x 146 x 39 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Ana Finel Honigman: What attracts you to the objects that you revive in your work?
Ry Rocklen: I am attracted to objects that are anachronistic despite their commonality. The objects used in my work are unavoidable. Mattresses, bed frames, futons, tables, chairs, carpets, and fans all come pouring out of homes and storage spaces from across the country. They are ubiquitous and essential to the average American lifestyle. A particular object I may use in an artwork will often exhibit eccentricities and peculiarities despite its prevalence.
AFH: Do you look for the objects that best represent their former function or have their own unique individual appeal? Are you hunting for the most banal bed or will an oddly shaped one attract you?
RR: The objects I use in my sculptures are not particularly outrageous. I will take a recognizable and meaningful object, like an old mattress or set of trophies, and turn it into an artwork through some type of bedazzlement or alteration. After someone views one of my sculptures they might see the spirit of the work in the next trophy or abandoned mattress they encounter. An unaltered object can share a sense of exaltation as it reminds the viewer of one of my sculptures. If an object I use in an artwork is too specific or oddly shaped it makes it harder to achieve this effect.
AFH: What is the oddest object you've found discarded?
RR: The strangest objects I have found discarded are unscratched lottery tickets. There was a liquor store next to where I was working that had a trashcan outside, and everyday in that trashcan I would find a couple lottery tickets that were only partially scratched off. It looked as if someone didn't quite know how to work the tickets. I pulled them from the garbage and would finish uncovering the "lucky numbers". It was an odd feeling to finish these tickets because while I wanted them to be winners I couldn't help but hope the tickets were worthless. There was something too sad about someone buying the ticket and mistakingly throwing away a winner.
Ry Rocklen, Refuge, 2007, BOX SPRING, SCREEN, THREAD, NAILS, 73.5 X 37 X 7.5”. Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: Do you look for humor in the art you love?
RR: Humor can be found in art that I love. Where there is humor there is often a connection to the artist. If one gets the humor in the art, the sense of humor is shared between the artist and the viewer. Humor is usually funny, and funny isn't always humorous. Funny can be strange, curious, and odd, all qualities I appreciate in an artwork.
AFH: How does the humor in your work relate to your sense of humor in everyday life?
RR: My favorite comedian is Mitch Hedberg. He is a master of jokes that are sculptural. One of his many jokes that exemplifies his ability to transpose language and objects goes, "I want to hang a map of the world in my house, then I am gonna put pins in all the locations I have travelled to, but first I am gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it wont fall down." This joke reminds me of when I was working on a piece based on a bedspring I had found. I took the old bedspring and stretched window screen over the top of it. Then over a few weeks with the help of friends we dropped nails into the holes of the window screen, creating a shimmering sequined surface ostensibly an inverted bed of nails. When I told my dad about the piece he said with all that work I could have made a rocket ship. Shortly thereafter Shamim Momin and Henriette Huldisch curated the work Refuge into the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and I thought to myself I had produced a rocket ship after all.
AFH: What makes L.A.'s art scene unique?
RR: The Los Angeles art scene is permissive, disparate, commercial, established, and pioneering while remaining engaged and connected to the art world at large. The vast community of artists in Los Angeles is sustained and refreshed by the outpouring of graduates from the complement of art schools in the area. Los Angeles is a city of diamonds in the rough and rewards those who are willing to look where others have ignored. It is a place where artists can remain connected while spending a lot of time by themselves.
Ry Rocklen, Dear Sally, 2011, Found poster and frame, acrylic mirror, 20.2 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: Can you talk about trends in trash? What are we throwing away now thats different from a few years ago? How does our trash reflect our era?
RR: The things being thrown away are generally the same as they were ten years ago. Old couches, bed frames, shelves, cabinets, dressers and the like continue to be relegated to curbs throughout the Southland. What has changed however is the time those objects remain by the side of the road. With the popularization of recycling more and more people are hunting for objects that can be sold as scrap to recycling plants throughout Los Angeles. This is true especially with anything made out of metal. Very rarely do I find something made from steel, iron, copper, or brass laying on someones lawn. Instead I see these objects piled high in the beds of pick-up trucks on their way to the recycling center.
AFH: Please tell me about your Marfa project.
RR: I have two works in the show Nothing Beside Remains on view in Marfa Texas. The first is a sculpture titled Second to None that can be found in an old storefront on a street that runs through the center of town. The sculpture is made out of over 140 trophies I collected from junk shops and thrift stores throughout Los Angeles. These trophies are assembled together so that the smallest trophies are elevated to the height of the largest trophies (measuring 7 feet high) by scaffolding the trophies on top of each other. The resulting sculpture measures 12 ft wide by 7 ft high by 3 ft deep. The second work I have in the show is titled Search for Ironed Curtain and is viewable from the Marfa courthouse turret. The actual material of the work is a custom green checkered curtain that hangs in the windows of houses and businesses that can be seen from the turret. From this vantage point one can look down onto the town of Marfa in search of my signature curtain. Currently there are eight of these curtains on view with more to come.
ArtSlant would like to thank Ry Rocklen for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman