KNOTORYUS TALKS TO CLARE ROJAS ABOUT “THE INEXHAUSTIBLE MIDDLE” AT ALICE GALLERY (INTERVIEW)
A little less than a week ago, San Francisco-based artist Clare Rojas opened “The Inexhaustible Middle”, her very first solo exhibition in Belgium while singing vulnerable songs as her alter ego “Peggy Honeywell”, accompanied by nothing more than her own guitar picking and strumming. The small cultural temple that made this little wonder happen was -of course- the beloved ALICE Gallery in Brussels.
A good 15 years after her very first museum show, Rojas has filled the walls of the ALICE Gallery-space with all new work. Having been known throughout the early 2000’s for her figurative & folk-tale-like paintings and installations speaking mostly on gender-roles and as a member of the world-renowned “Mission School” (considered to be the most influential group of artists to come out of San Francisco), Clare had taken a few years to write. These past couple of years she returned to the gallery scene with mostly abstract work, as first showed at Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld’s Gallery late 2013.
(above image (c) Mireya Acierto: Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld & Clare Rojas)
Art fans might know that Clare Rojas’ story was high-jacked before she even had the chance to establish her own identity. It’s all been eerily chronicled in this fairly recent and compelling piece from The New Yorker. I chose not to add to this narrative with my interview for personal and methodical reasons: I look at my interviews as hopefully ongoing conversations that might continue somewhere in this lifetime and I think it is rude to open with trauma or discuss subjects that might affect a young teenager’s life who isn’t even present during said conversation. I don’t want to speak on a situation that could be perceived in many ways, when all that I know for sure is that Barry McGee, the famous artist and also Clare’s husband whose child she has cared for from the beginning and soon after legally adopted, made a decision that was literally the opposite of what my own mother did. My mom was the one left devastated, shattered and in utter shock when my father suddenly died leaving her with a one-year-old while also pregnant with me. She chose to carry everything on her own and therefore never had neither the chance nor the breathing room to process what happened. McGee knew early on that wasn’t going to be an option for him and his infant daughter when his first wife passed away and made a decision to involve Clare Rojas early on.
So fuck anyone who has a problem with this approach (both mine and the McGee-Rojas’) and is here for the juice. They can do them, and I’ll do what works for me, my conscience and my platform.
Clare and I still discussed interesting and fun stuff, so here is what we talked about.
(image (c) Peter Bohler/ Clare Rojas, her husband Barry McGee and their daughter Asha)
KNOTORYUS: I was here at the opening and at one point I was talking to Raph (Raphaël Cruyt, co-owner of ALICE Gallery, ed.note) and I was telling him how much I respect the fact that you put it all out there. Your art of course, which is already so personal, but then you also chose to perform a little acoustic set as well. Was it difficult for you to do that? Is that extra nerve-racking?
CLARE ROJAS: (laughs) It is and it isn’t. I mean, I get nervous before a performance. But then, once I start singing I get into the zone. But yes, it’s a vulnerable place to be.
KNOTORYUS: Is it something that you seek out to do? Is it a necessity? Because I know that Alice likes to have live music on opening night, but you could’ve chosen a band to perform. Or is all your art connected ?
CLARE ROJAS: It’s absolutely connected. The narrative of the song isn’t necessarily about the paintings anymore, like it used to be. But this work is so related to music and harmony and balance and sound and breath, for me, that it’s still very connected. And you know, I didn’t perform for a long time when I went abstract. And then I just still kept writing music. And I guess at a certain point, you just feel like: if you don’t share it, what’s the point?
KNOTORYUS: Do you expect something back as well? Or is it just about the act of putting it out there?
CLARE ROJAS: It’s just a part of it. It happens simultaneously: while I’m painting, I’m writing. I don’t have to share it, but I feel like I’m being afraid if I don’t. Like I’m giving into a fear. And I don’t want to give into fear.
KNOTORYUS: That’s kind of what I thought. That you give yourself that extra challenge or that extra push and when you overcome it, it feels better.
CLARE ROJAS: It feels empowering.
KNOTORYUS: The colour of the work that you are showing here, and some of the shapes as well, throw me back to when I was really little. To some kind of shapes that were in my mom’s interior and I guess the family’s as well, without it being too literal at all. I was wondering if the palette had something to do with your upbringing as well.
CLARE ROJAS: That’s interesting. I never put it in that context but people have said that the palette is very modern art 60s, 70s. These are just my favourite colours and I’ve always used them. The palette’s a little more reduced than in the past, it’s just that I really like the warmth of them. But let me think. The house I grew up in was rather dark. The carpet was some kind of puke green. there was a lot of brown and the curtains were always… No. (goes silent)
But the Fall, I love it. It’s my favourite time of year. Every year I look up the peak foliage for Ohio and I do my pilgrimage to the leaves. No matter what. I think about that a lot. Walking in the woods, it’s very nostalgic. So, these are fall colours.
KNOTORYUS: Could you talk to me about how you started this particular collection of paintings for ALICE Gallery?
CLARE ROJAS: I’ve been working with this shape for a while. I was telling Alice that I didn’t really know what or where the source was. It just felt really good and it was something that I’d constantly doodle. And then, when I just wanted to be quiet I started to paint it and it almost became like a language. It became a song, it became the mountains, it became the water. I would be laying in bed and I’d see my feet and all of a sudden the shape was in my feet if my heels were placed together, so it became really figurative and I started to see it everywhere. It made me feel like I found something that made me feel very connected to everything.
KNOTORYUS: So you started working with these fall colours and the shapes…
CLARE ROJAS: I’m going to pay attention to the seasonal palette now. (laughs) See what happens. Because I’m sure that what I’m seeing affects my palette.
KNOTORYUS: Do the seasons really affect you mood-wise as well?
CLARE ROJAS: (instantly) Yeah.
KNOTORYUS: I have that. I always look forward to fall and then winter, to the coziness of it all. But when it stays dark for too long that’s not good for me either. In February I start to get anxious and it’s time for spring and summer.
CLARE: I know, it gets hard when it gets dark.
KNOTORYUS: I also wanted to talk a bit about the title, because I was trying to think about what it meant: ‘The Inexhaustible Middle’. I was pondering what ‘inexhaustible’ could mean to me. I always tell my daughter to pay attention to what she likes to do, what gives her more energy instead of draining it. Because now she’s in the last year of middle school and next year she’s going to start high school, so I think it’s very important for her to stay connected to what she really likes doing now so she can expand on that. She is still at that age where she can enjoy stuff and not care about what anyone else thinks. That’s what I think is inexhaustible, in the end. The things you find inspiration in constantly.
CLARE ROJAS: And not letting go of them as you age.
KNOTORYUS: And not letting other people tell you you can’t, or waver from that. It probably has nothing to do with your title, but could you tell me what it means to you?
CLARE ROJAS: I was trying to figure out a title for this work and I was on the phone with my mom and I was looking at the ocean and there was a flock of birds that landed. I said: ‘There’s a flock of birds in the middle of the ocean’. And I laughed because obviously that wasn’t the middle of the ocean. Then I started thinking about ‘where is the middle of the ocean?’ Where’s the middle of anything? Where’s the middle of the world, of being? There is no middle. You just inexhaustibly exist in space forever and ever. I remember saying that to this lady I had just met. She asked me what I was doing and I said I had just come up with a title: ‘The Inexhaustible Middle’. And she said: ‘I grew up in a Buddhist monastery and there’s a whole sect of Buddhism that’s called ‘Middle Way Buddhism’, that’s all about that thought of ‘where’s the middle?’. Of existing. There is no beginning or end. It’s all just in time and space. I don’t know, it was just a concept that triggered a lot in my imagination.
KNOTORYUS: Does your work go in cycles? It used to be more figurative years ago. Then it turned more abstract and now… I can see figures in the work, but that’s probably just me. Is it an evolving process? Or are you sometimes done with stuff?
CLARE ROJAS: Yeah, I get ‘done’. I feel as though I explore as much as I can. But I don’t want any rules anymore. Years ago, I was stuck to a narrative. My politics were very clear and I spoke about that one thing and there were rules to that. I had to talk and give lectures about the politics. I was expected to speak for women. I didn’t want to live like that. I’m a creative above all, so if I feel like making narrative work again, I will. It doesn’t matter to me. Small, large, oil, gouache,… I don’t want to be told what to do. And the art world does tell you what to do. They could accept, deny or criticise what you do. But it doesn’t matter any more.
KNOTORYUS: There’s nothing I love more than some good old reclaimed freedom. It seems in this exhibition as well, there are some paintings that are different from the more dominant narrative with the clean lines. Just two or three have more free brush strokes. It already looks like you’re trying something different within this one show.
CLARE ROJAS: With two drawings in particular, it starts with this idea of my very hard-edge controlled graphic style. I paint so controlled and tight and I was curious what it would be like if it were more gestural and the blocks of colour were represented with just the strokes of the brush. Which I see all the time when I’m painting. Layer after layer, while I’m filling in here or there. I get to see those gestural brush strokes and I think they look beautiful but the painting’s not done because that’s not the way I paint. And then I think that’s stupid, I can do whatever I want, I don’t need those rules. And so I try. I’m excited to keep trying though.
KNOTORYUS: So it was something you were trying out.
CLARE ROJAS: Yeah, I had to.
KNOTORYUS: It’s cool, because it looks like you’re announcing the next step. Or just: ‘Oh, you’re used to this? Well, now I’m doing something else’.
CLARE ROJAS: It’s interesting, these internal conversations I have. I’ll say: ‘No, you can’t do that, that’s not how you paint.’ But we can do whatever we want! It’s so nuts how we think that we’re just supposed to do this one thing.
KNOTORYUS: A lot of visual artists that I gravitate towards are also musicians or writers. And you do those things. Does that go in cycles as well?
CLARE ROJAS: I’ve been trying to play music. It’s how I end my day. Very ritualistically. It’s really exhausting to straddle painting and music. I go into the headspace of writing songs and that’s all I’ll do. And then I paint. I can get really neurotic trying to do both. That happens, but it’s never like a plan. It’s not like ‘I’m going to go write music now’. It happens when it happens.
KNOTORYUS: Do you want channel different emotions via every medium? For instance, is singing more vulnerable than painting, or is it the other way around?
CLARE ROJAS: Music is completely vulnerable. There’s a lot of grief in there that’s released… It’s access to emotions I don’t normally let myself access. So it’s a very protected space.
KNOTORYUS: I can understand that. The songs that you sang yesterday, how did you choose them?
CLARE ROJAS: I have a handful of new songs that I wrote. I haven’t really shared them, they’re semi new. So I like those. And then I have a handful of older songs that, as I’ve played them over the course of 15-20 years, change with me. I haven’t had that awareness of it and that’s fascinating to me. That the song is growing older with me.
KNOTORYUS: Who are your own favourite artists?
CLARE ROJAS: I’m really inspired by comedians. I mean, they just grasp a bigger picture and reduce it down. It’s so genius to me. They make you feel good and connected to the world. I listen to a lot of podcasts and Netflix comedy specials when I paint.
KNOTORYUS: I’m a huge stand-up comedy fan. So last but really important question then: Who are your Top 5 favourite comedians alive?
CLARE ROJAS: Let me think…
KNOTORYUS: (Wasn’t going to shut up anyway) I’ll go first!
CLARE ROJAS AND ALICE VAN DEN ABEELE: (both laugh)
KNOTORYUS: Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Russell Brand.
CLARE ROJAS: Dave Chappelle you just press pause and fall on the floor laughing and crying at the same time. Sometimes I do that. I’ll just lay on the floor and say: ‘I give up’, because he just nailed everything on the planet and made me laugh so hard. Ok, So my top 5 in no particular order, because I like them all so much: Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert,… Jon Stewart needs to be in there too. I need to have more women. I like Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson from ‘Broad City’. This woman called Phoebe Robinson, does a podcast called ‘Sooo Many White Guys’.
KNOTORYUS: Great title.
CLARE: But most of these guys are not kid-friendly, so when I want to watch or listen with my daughter, Jim Gaffigan is cool. Oh, and have you heard of Hari Kondabolu? He is amazing, you have to check him out.
KNOTORYUS: Well, thank you so much Clare. I saw some great art, got to talk about it and the artist herself gave me some new comedy to listen to. This is a good day.
CLARE ROJAS: (laughs) Ok, thank you.
(all images courtesy of the artist and ALICE Gallery)
“The Inexhaustible Middle”
4 rue du pays du Liège