Creating unmitigated beauty for the eyes and ears, Clare Rojas is a revolutionary presence. And for the next three months, she graces the Museum of Craft & Folk Art with a stunner of a show called We They, We They. Organized in collaboration with Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, where a similar iteration of the show was presented earlier this year, the exhibition has been remixed in true DIY style, and re-installed locally, in the city where Rojas lives and works.
On opening night in San Francisco, Rojas performed a handful of songs under her stage name, Peggy Honeywell. Peggy wears a disarming wig and appears to have stepped right out of a Clare Rojas painting with her guitar in hand. In my household, Peggy Honeywell is on par with Johnny Cash. Her folksy songs transport me to a timeless place where judgments are tabled, and stories are told with unwavering charm and insight. Her artwork goes hand-and-hand with her music, sharing themes and essence.
Video shot by Elizabeth Pepin
The location of Rojas's exhibition shouldn't be a surprise. Her work belongs in a museum. It's atypical for an exhibition to travel from a fine art gallery to a folk art museum, but rather than dwell on how Clare Rojas fits into the folk/fine art continuum, let's just indulge in her work. It's meant to be enjoyed and savored, because it's empowering, especially for those who understand that women are over-objectified and undervalued in most societies.
In the counterculture art scene, too many female artists gain recognition by painting doe-eyed, sexy girls who are supposed to be considered powerful because they use perceived innocence and sexuality as weapons. I don't buy it, and I see Rojas's work as the antithesis of that trend. We should all pay attention to what she is trying to tell us. She's not going to hand it to you on a TV dinner tray -- you might crave more explanation when it comes to her work -- but if you spend time critically viewing her imagery, you'll understand her motives. In addition to framed works, and wall-sized quilts of paintings on salvaged wood, also on view are three videos that help drive home her message (all three were produced with artist Andrew Jeffrey Wright). One is a music video for Peggy Honeywell's "Bower Bird," in which the singer performs solemnly during a testosterone-fueled keg party, sticking out like a sore thumb in her beehive wig and red country dress. On Peggy's blog she says the video shows how she feels when performing at art openings, but she's also commenting on frat party culture. In the other videos, fashion magazine pages become obscured with animated doodles -- objectified women's heads turn into fish, their skinny arms are stretched or fattened -- she is critiquing advertising's sexism in an approachable, funny way.
Photo: Alan Bamberger
Men are noticeably underrepresented in Rojas's latest paintings. When they appear, they look vulnerable. In one large piece, male faces are blocked as they run up the long tongue of a giant, old world woman, with piles of offerings in their arms. But don't call her a man-hater. Rojas is merely trying to tip the scales back into balance. After all, before the '60s, art history books would have you believe that women never, ever made art. It was only 25 years ago that the Guerilla Girls called out the rampant discrimination in museums. And women are still paid significantly less than men for the same job in any field. When I look at Clare Rojas's work, with its mysterious narrative and vintage aesthetic, I cross my fingers that one day our children will see her paintings and think, "Women must've been really powerful in the old days." I'm opening a can of worms here -- I don't want future generations to be fooled, but I want them to know that there were people here trying to even things out, rewriting history to reflect the truth about the powerful roles that all people (of all genders, ethnicities, and orientations) have played in shaping contemporary life.
Look closely at the women in Rojas's paintings, the lines on their faces, their expressions and subtle gestures, and the spaces they occupy. Some are welcoming other women into safety. Others sit in chairs; their heads drooped over. Are they sorrowful? Gathering strength? Meditating? Waiting? Space is of particular importance in this show, Rojas is starting to explore domestic habitats in her work. If you stand at a certain point in the museum and are the artist's height, the murals' lines converge to give you the perspective of being in one of the rooms in her paintings. It's really special to be able to see works from the artist's last few years, and witness the beginning of a new direction at the same time.
If you didn't drop this article halfway through because you couldn't wait to get over to MOCFA (or Amoeba to purchase some Peggy Honeywell records), you're a fool. Don't come back until you've done both of those things. I mean it.
We They, We They is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art through August 22, 2010. Clare Rojas will discuss her work at the museum on Thursday, March 20, 2010 at 7pm. For more information visit mocfa.org.