San Francisco neo-folk artist Clare Rojas expands her visual range in this pivotal show of new work, which dominates the intimate space of this small museum. This is a powerful, twistedly delightful exhibition. It further adds to the artist’s growing stature as one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and prolific contemporary artists. In addition to this, her first solo museum show, Rojas’s work is also currently featured in a two-person exhibition with Barry McGee at the Bolinas Museum of Art, and, last April, the SF Arts Commission installed a commissioned work by her at the City’s international airport.
In keeping with past work, this show is bright and graphic. The flatness of the work references Rojas’s printmaking past; the influences of folk art, outsider art, street art, cartooning, illustration, and quilting remain strong. Rojas is rightly associated with the area’s “lowbrow” Mission School, which also encompasses artists McGee, Chris Johanson, and Margaret Kilgallen, among others. Comparisons among the artists can readily be drawn.
But Rojas is not simply a product of influences. Her voice, iconography, and message are distinctive and evolving. In this show, Rojas presents both smaller works, which are hung salon-style along one wall, and then numerous enormous works that cover the rest of the walls from floor to ceiling. Also on view is an amusing video, “Manipulation,” that Rojas contributed to with animation.
Throughout, the artist continues her references to home-life with figurative narratives that are often bizarre, verging on disturbing; a primary topic is gender/feminism. In one large-scale work, three women look to the sky, two expelling an upflowing substance from their mouths, the other from her eyes. In another, three male figures ascend a striped ramp/tongue that leads to a woman’s open mouth.
New here the artist also presents almost completely abstracted scenes, though references to the home remain; another larger-than-life piece is a minimalist home interior. Exploring formal uses of line, perspective, color, and composition, Rojas’s depiction of this comfort zone gets a little queasy. One high point of the exhibition is a huge “wall quilt” made up of numerous geometric panels, each painted one color, and arranged in a way that recalls childhood parquetry block designs; this surrounds a central seated female figure.
A critique that has been leveled at Rojas’ work is that it drifts toward decorative simplicity. Now, no. It has decorative elements that make it likable, just not too likeable. It pushes far beyond becoming vapid or ingratiating. Colors, shapes, and patterns clash in challenging, dissonant ways; there is a not-quite-right-ness that keeps us fully engaged. It is, indeed, the decorativeness that provides the hook; we stick around to feel the story.
In a 2004 New York Times review of Rojas’s solo show at Deitch Projects, critic Roberta Smith ended with the upbeat, “. . . this show generally brims with promise.” Clare Rojas is making good on that promise.