Humility has been a consistently appealing quality in Ry Rocklen’s work over his decade-long career. Even when it approaches bling – as with his polished bronze cast of a punctured Humvee wheel (Untitled Hummer Flat, 2014) – his work is inflected with a down-home wit and a self-deprecating localism. Rocklen, a Los Angeles native who also studied in the city, is more entitled than most to call it his muse. The press release for ‘L.A. Relics’, incredibly the artist’s first exhibition in the city since 2009, curiously notes that his memories of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were particularly influential on the series that shares the show’s title.
The first work gallery-goers encounter, Whiskers (2016), hardly seems to fit the show’s reference. Three glass shelves backed by a wall-mounted mirror hold an object, sliced into three: a ceramic cat, flat on its outward-facing side and glazed with a photograph of what the press release tells us is actually a cat-shaped, photo-printed cushion that Rocklen found.
The rear of the sliced cat is not, however, flat. Rocklen has modelled the ceramic into a detailed monochrome relief of an extraordinary rope sculpture of a cat; it looks like – and has the presence of – something one might find in an anthropological museum, except it probably comes from a flea market. Because it faces the mirror, the reflected relief floats in mid-air, a few centimetres back from the plane of the wall – more substantial, ironically, than the colour photograph in real space in front of it.
Three more works join Whiskers in the ‘L.A. Relics’ series. One is fronted with a photograph of a smashed-flat plastic bottle, while behind it is a fabric figure wearing a frightening army-surplus mask, resembling a mummy or a voodoo doll. In another, a trashed chest of drawers decorated with torn-off stickers and love hearts is backed by a model of an ornate, cylindrical building.
What do these photo-sculptures have to do with the 1984 Olympics? I’d venture that the facelift the city underwent before its performance on the international stage caused many of its grungier textures to be smoothed out, and that the mismatch between our real self and projected selves set Rocklen thinking about the gaps between aspiration and achievement, between projection and reception, between fantasy and everyday life.
In the adjacent gallery, these ideas of civic identity are focused into more personal dimensions. ‘The Rocklen Suite’ (2014–16) is a series of stoneware casts of ten folded pieces from the artist’s wardrobe. The series harks back to two iconic Los Angeles works, both bearing the same title, All My Clothes: a 1970 photograph by Bas Jan Ader and a 1973 photo series by Rocklen’s one-time teacher, Charles Ray. In each, the wardrobe appears both as a conceptualist archive and a hybrid signifier of identity. In Rocklen’s series, the creased and wrinkled clothes become unlikely, late-life recipients of rarefied status, even as the originals were destroyed in casting and replaced by their rigid ceramic surrogates.
Rocklen returns time and again to the conceptual and formal transferences between hard and soft: the hardness of the built environment, the softness of the people who inhabit it and the soft and broken things they throw away. Rocklen tends to resurrect those discarded objects by making them hard again. In Head Planter (2016), a rubber mask is cast in terracotta, upended and repurposed as a plant pot. In Soft Pop (2016), a cushion cover shaped like a can of Sprite is cast in grey aluminium. For Rocklen, casting an object in another material is a political statement, a declaration of the dignity and richness of things not generally considered worth preserving.