Ry Rocklen Interview
Ry Rocklen is an artist and educator working in Los Angeles, CA. His work is represented by Untitled and has been exhibited as part of the Whitney Biennial of American Art (2008). Rocklen has two installations currently on view in Marfa, TX as part of Nothing Beside Remains, presented by Los Angeles Nomadic Division and curated by Shamim Momin.
Sam Korman: Hey. Ry.
Ry Rocklen: Hey, Sam.
SK: How’s it going? Are you in LA?
RR: All is well. Yes, I am in Los Angeles, Los Feliz to be more specific.
SK: I’ve only ever been to Venice and Hollywood and each for a day on my way somewhere else. I have absolutely no geographic sense of that place. I feel a little like a philistine, because of it. Same with New York. Oh well.
RR: It is my goal to one day live in a city other than Los Angeles, as I have lived here my whole life. Before I leave however there are still many parts I the city I have yet to visit. How are you doing out in Marfa?
SK: Pretty well. Trying to stay busy. It’s fun to walk by your piece in the storefront. Sometimes I forget it’s an art piece and think that it is just some weird holdover from and out-of-business trophy store. It’s a nice little switch up. Oh, and the sunsets and moons have been unbelievable.
RR: I was just scrolling through a host of friends who are online and available to chat. It is different than calling someone on the phone since I can tell they are already available to chat.
SK: Maybe we could start with the work you’ve done in Texas, in Marfa and Austin.
RR: Absolutely, Texas is a wonderful place to begin.
SK: Have you displayed work outside of a gallery setting before Nothing Beside Remains?
RR: It has been a while since I showed in a non-gallery setting. The last time was in 2008 when Shamim organized the Station show, which took place in a unfinished Crate and Barrel store in Miami. The walls were still raw cinderblock and the floor was bare concrete and gravel.
SK: It changes your work a lot. Second to None, like I mentioned above, reads as an artwork, but what seems to change is the deliberateness of the placement in the storefront. It seems totally appropriate to your work, with the double-sided sculptures. (I have an ongoing joke with a friend where we text each other images of things that look like Cady Noland sculptures we see on the street).
RR: That sounds fun. Did you set up a blog for that? Having Second to None in the storefront was a really pleasant surprise. I really like how the sculpture is still viewable even when the storefront is closed. I like how people can look in through the window at the sculpture sitting in the dark of the empty space.
SK: What changes with the work between the open and closed hours?
RR: I have the feeling there is something more romantic about the sculpture when the storefront is closed, as there is a sense of longing as one stares through the glass. When people are able to enter they can get close to the sculpture and read the little placards on the trophies and see all the little figures and how the piece is put together, and for what it loses in its mysteriousness it gains in its complexity.
SK: The other piece in the show, Search For Ironed Curtain, has a similar perspective shift. In that case, it’s very much a site-specific piece, but the site is Marfa itself. How far can a piece go before it is just an object in the world? (I deliberately withheld a description of the piece, because it’s a nice decision one has to make while walking around town or looking out from the viewing tower at the court house: did I see it? what did I see?)
RR: I have been wondering if I could do Search for Ironed Curtain somewhere other than Marfa and I am unsure because of how perfect Marfa is for the piece. The courthouse tower is spectacular and then the town is small enough that you can see it in its entirety from the tower. The actual material of the piece will eventually become an artifact, and I was thinking if I were to recreate the piece in a different location, it might no longer be a curtain.
SK: A friend of mine said that there is something creepy about curtains.
RR: I concur. I have done a few curtain sculptures and am attracted to them partly because they soak up the histories of the people they keep in the dark. If the walls have eyes curtains have noses. I am always simultaneously curious and disturbed by the sight of curtains drawn during the day. Especially when you can tell they have been drawn for a long long time. The most disturbing of all curtains in my estimation is Aluminum Foil.
SK: I have never seen that, but I have never really lived somewhere with a lot of sun—or weed growing operations or meth labs, at least in one’s living rooms (or maybe I am oblivious to all the meth being made under my nose all these years). Do you consider yourself a studio-based artist? I ask, because the work in Marfa seems to reverse your working process of bringing vernacular objects into the studio and reworking them. Here, they bring the studio work into the vernacular space.
RR: The studio is a base of operation. In my most successful works I take something I find and turn it into a sculpture, and through this shift the next time the viewer sees a similar object out in the world that object becomes a conduit for my sculpture. Through alteration of one ubiquitous object I hope to activate many. The Search For Ironed Curtain operates similarly as it is a ploy to get people to visit the courthouse turret and look carefully at the town of Marfa, as a curtain in one window can energize the rest.
SK: While we are talking, I am listening to The Minutemen, and the song, “The World According To Nouns” came on. Despite its political overtones, the song is really amazing, because, in the end, the last line is, “can these words refine the truth?” This seems pertinent to your working practice in a certain way. The world according to objects.
RR: Thank you for sharing Sam, what a great song! We are connected by our objects and furniture. In some ways, we are ruled by them. For a long time we didn’t have a kitchen table in our apartment because we didn’t think we could find one that would fit. It was dispiriting because without one we ate our dinner and breakfast on the couch. One day on the radio I heard about a book called The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik. He was saying how the kitchen table is the most important piece of furniture in the house. Hearing this helped motivate us to finally get a table that worked in our little kitchen and it has really changed the way we live. I am writing from this table now!
SK: Wow! When I was looking at images of your work today, especially the two-sided sculptures, it made me think about how I just moved. In another interview, you mentioned that you want to treat surfaces like objects, and when I moved, I had to divorce myself from the meaning I ascribed to all the drawings and photographs that I didn’t want or couldn’t take with me anymore and throw them out like objects. Could you define some of your installations as some kind of hoarding? Hoarding of objects? Hoarding of narratives? Though punctuated with some kind of humor.
RR: Absolutely, I am attracted to many of the objects I use because of the accumulation of information within them. For the installation at the Visual Art Center of U.T., Austin, the floor was covered in carpet tiles, which was made with found carpet mounted on wood. The carpet had a past life, which could be seen through the stains and general wear and tear of its surface. The carpet was enriched and activated by its past life, giving it an intensity new carpet would not have. Some have talked about my work as portraiture and at the time I thought that description was a stretch, but more recently I can see how this is true. My installations can be seen as portraits of a people as a whole, as it is made from stuff people once had but are now getting rid of. The installations as a whole present a kind of averaging of an American sensibility.
SK: I should probably get going, I have to work early tomorrow, but one last question (perhaps a pertinent one, since I need to go to sleep), with ZZZ’s, what was the attraction to sleep? I like the idea of the averaging of an American sensibility and they seem related.
RR: The attraction to sleep works on a few different levels. The first being beds are probably the most common piece of furniture in any American home. I come across a lot of them and as a result they have found there way into the work. Secondly sleep is an incredibly mysterious state of being. It is during sleep we people are most likely to have a vision of the future, communicate with the dead, and visit places they we never been.
Studio Tour with Ry Rocklen
On our last day in Los Angeles, we checked out a few galleries and bookstores in Chinatown and then met up with artist Ry Rocklen for a studio tour. Ry was the artist in residence at the Visual Arts Center in Fall 2010. His studio, although not as large as Amanda’s and Eric’s, was cozy, organized, and filled with his works in progress.
Upon entering, our eyes were immediately drawn to a huge collection of trophies of all sizes. We won’t give away his intentions for it yet, but he claims it’s his “biggest, most complicated and sparkly” headlining piece for an upcoming show in NYC.
Question: You seem to use a lot of found/used/thrift materials in your work. Is that directly connected with what you’re making and the finished product?
Ry Rocklen: It’s not a philosophical agenda. I’m not saying, “I make art using found objects because I want to save the environment” but I think that’s great and more of a subconscious thing that’s going on in my head. But on the conscious level, I just like to go into the world and find things that, for whatever reason, inspire me to make work. Sometimes there are different things now that catch my eye because of different ways that I’m working. For example, this poster of Disney characters in front of bricks. I’ve been excited about posters with brick patterns because I want to start cutting them out and I’m excited that you won’t see the characters anymore, but you’ll kind of be able to see the characters in the grout. So there are certain objects that I’m looking for because I know I can use them in a certain way. But then other things are just pure chaos in terms of materials for work. You guys experienced at my VAC show, ZZZ’s, that I’m attracted to what happens when you take something random or found that is pretty lowly and then prestigiously embellish it. Basically, I think that no matter what it is if you see that there’s an intense labor in something you can visualize the time spent to create it.
Q: Can you tell us about your quest for finding a studio space?
RR: When I got out of grad school, I went and looked for space and had a live/work space for a while. Then I moved into this building after a friend moved out of it. At first, it looked like shit; it had diarrhea colored floors and weird vibes, but then I moved in, made it my own, and it was wonderful. That’s a piece of wisdom; if you see a space in your future that you’re looking to get, know that you can really make a space your own with a little TLC and some paint.
FUN FACT! Ry’s entire show from the VAC is stored in his studio he thinks “it’s kinda rad and it makes me proud that such a massive show can fit in this studio!”
Here it is all stowed away:
Q: How did you become represented and how did you transition from undergrad to grad to being represented?
RR: The story of how I became represented as an artist began while I was at UCLA. There was a painting teacher there, Roger Herman, who had a gallery space in Chinatown called the Black Dragon Society that was considered a project space for students outside of school. I showed there for a while, and as the art market grew and Chinatown’s reputation of showing great artists grew, it became a hot commercial gallery scene so I continued to show there. But my career didn’t take off to the point where I was able to make art professionally full time. After my undergrad I spent a couple years working at an after school elementary art program and applied to graduate school. That was a really dynamite experience that helped me hone my profession, as it should. After grad school I had a show at Black Dragon Society and that was very helpful in terms of representation along with the art fairs that they went to. The art fairs introduced me to other galleries such as my gallery in Brussels.
Q: What are some other issues that you faced when maintaining your studio?
RR: Money. I mean that’s probably the biggest issue. You need to work with different galleries, have shows and then work needs to sell at those shows. Then there’s not always a guarantees that you’ll sell anything, so there’s a gamble with any project that you might have to bet on yourself if you’re not established yet.
After our studio tour with Ry, he took us to see his artist friend Hannah Greely’s studio in the same building. We didn’t do a formal interview with her, but she was working on some great-looking projects as well.