Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Laura Rokas / Tears of Rage: Gallery Visit & Interview

A painting of cardboard sculptured hands painting on grass by Laura Rokas. On view now, in her solo exhibition Tears of Rage at Guerrero Gallery.

I'm not sure when I first saw work by Laura Rokas, but it may have been online. Then, I would occasionally bump into her at a local coffee shop in the dogpatch, where her studio is located and near where I previously worked. 

I'd see her sitting and embroidering small patches. Laura has been painting for years, introducing ceramic sculptures and hand embroidered patches recently of the same visual subjects. 

In her current solo show, Tears of Rage, at Guerrero Gallery, Laura includes paintings, hand embroidered patch paintings, and ceramic sculptures. Laura pulls from her personal life, experiences, and interests to create the narratives in work. The resulting pieces are colorful, using recurring imagery taking form in each of the mediums she uses. Her subjects transcend material, fabricating several realities where they can exist.

Laura Rokas is a Canadian artist born in a small town in the french province of Québec. She has been living in the Bay Area since 2014 and has recently completed her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

I recently met with Laura at Guerrero Gallery to talk about her work and show Tears of Rage. Check out the full interview and photos below

SFACC: Can you talk about how you began making patch pieces? How has the translation of your imagery from paint to fabric/embroidery felt? You've gotten better since your started - you have a groove of how to do it now - huh?

Laura Rokas: I made a painting a couple of years ago of a huge free floating jacket with dangling cardboard hands where I had cut out and glued on trompe l’oeil painted embroidered patches. I had absolutely no interest in sewing until I visited my family back in Québec last winter and my sisters had taken up embroidery. They taught me a few stitches and I became unstoppable. It seems a pretty obvious path in retrospect, since I was already working with patch imagery, but until quite recently, I was still very paint-centric. I had never sewn before and I’ve actually never used a sewing machine, so being basically self-taught, I do run into some technical issues sometimes but I think I’ve figured out a good method for the patches. I can definitely whip ‘em out at a moment’s notice now.

SFACC: There are several recurring icons in your work referencing good luck and good fortune - like dice, Maneki Neko, etc. What is your personal relationship to luck? How do you view your luck - and the balance of it? Good vs bad in your life?

small lucky charms tucked into a pocket on a patch painting. 

variety of patches including red nail polish and red maple leaf rendered in as a cardboard cut out.

LR: I have a history of being freak accident prone but also incredibly lucky. My favorite story to tell at parties is the time I fell down an elevator shaft in an abandoned warehouse in Montréal on a Friday the 13th and broke my spine and almost became quadriplegic. The painting I made during the recovery from that accident won the Bank of Montreal art contest. Events like this are not uncommon for me; the night I had the wheels stolen off my new bike, I won a scholarship. I’ve broken 2 bones in cycling accidents since I’ve moved to California – neither or which was my fault, each with their own equally fantastic reward. Maybe surrounding myself with good luck charms has helped me bounce back from all of these accidents, maybe it’s just my own resilience, but I can’t help believing that there’s some sort of external force at play keeping balance.  

SFACC: Cycling and being on a bike is so woven into who you are. Can you talk about some of those references you make in your work in this show? Like 7-11, 

LR: I’m not even sure when it happened, but I’ve become a sports history junkie. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, friendship, betrayal, cheating, cycling has it all. And it has a lot in common with painting: elitist, white, male, unforgiving, for masochists only. The 7-Eleven cycling team was the first American team to participate in the Tour de France. Steve Bauer, who was on the team in 1990, was the only Canadian to get close to a Tour victory. He wore the coveted Yellow Jersey for 9 stages before ultimately ceding it to Greg Lemond for his 3rd and final victory, the only American to ever win the Tour. The history of professional bike racing is rooted in advertisement – you have some of the worlds most talented athletes riding for construction material companies, it’s ridiculous, but cycling is a grueling, very serious sport. For example, Eddy Merckx has forever elevated the logo of the Italian sausage company Molteni, his team sponsor, by being one of the top cyclists in history, whereas Lance Armstrong has defaced the USPS logo forever for being a big fat phoney. Jerseys and team logos work a lot the way patches do, they indicate a certain rank or affiliation. I love the connection between sport and fashion – team uniforms often feature embroidery. Funnily though, I hate racing, I think I’m too competitive for it.

Detail of a patch painting by Laura Rokas.

SFACC: The title of your show is Tears of Rage. What does that mean to you? What are some of your thoughts about rage? There is a stigma attached to rage of it being something negative.  

LR: Some pretty heinous things happened to me in my personal life this year and I got mad. I needed to find a way to cope and I decided to let myself be angry and use this anger as motivation to better myself. In a way, seeing emotional pain the way I’ve coped with physical pain. There is a stigma about anger, especially as a woman. Rather than turn to actual revenge, I had the strength to have a no-nonsense prolific year in the studio. If you’ve ever rage ridden your bike, you know the power anger can give you.  I also wanted to be truthful about my feelings and motivations; I hate that wishy-washy faux-chill persona a lot of people around here have. On a more universal level, many people in our community have a lot to be angry about; we’re seeing our friends die, lives being displaced and rights being stepped on. Being complacent and enabling toxic people in any sort of way is contributing to this deception.

‘Tears of Rage’ is also the first track on the Band’s 1968 debut album ‘Music from Big Pink’ (a Canadian must-have). It’s a song about not hating your parents even if they’ve done you wrong and most likely an allegory for America (Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics), which could be considered an inspiring, apropos message given our current socio-political situation.  

Laura Rokas at Guerrero Gallery on December 16, 2016.

SFACC: Cardboard is a material you've represented in your work by replicating the texture of its folds and color through painting and ceramic. What's your interest in cardboard as a material? How do you use cardboard in your studio before making a piece or making a sculpture representing it? The objects become precious.

Ceramic snake sculpture - replicating cardboard folds and layers.

LR: I’ve become that girl who loves cardboard. I started building my own source material for painting about 6-7 years ago. I started out with recycled paper, plaster, newspaper, clay, eraser – anything neutral enough that the material wasn’t obvious at first glance. When I moved here, I started exclusively building out of cardboard, I think, mostly because that’s what was plentiful and available to me. Cardboard is really the perfect material for my purposes – it speaks to the consumer mentality, especially of the Bay Area where every recycling bin is full to the brim of amazon prime boxes. The texture of its ridges is also very satisfying to me as a painter, I enjoy painting nubbly little bits of things, it also helps with scale, the texture of cardboard is so familiar that anyone could identify the actual size of the original sculptures, as usually they are blown up in the paintings. When I’m out walking, I’m always scoping out cardboard boxes, out for recycling, all neatly flattened and tucked into a box made of the same material. The logos on the boxes are a thing in themselves, for me, connecting branding to sport team sponsors. Sometimes I’ll come across the most perfect box on the side walk in the TL, where I live, and realize that there’s actually someone sleeping inside it, a grim reminder of the trash world we live in and those who are truly most affected by it.
I’m really into kitsch, but I’m also really into craftsmanship and quality. The real cardboard sculptures themselves never see the light of day, but sometimes they get re-incarnated into ceramic sculptures and become precious, fragile objects. 

SFACC: You moved to SF about two years ago for school and just graduated this past spring. Can you talk about your love/hate relationship with the city? You paint the Golden Gate Bridge sometimes. 

Laura's keychain with GGB - which she made an embroidery version of in a piece.

LR: I definitely came here for the weather and the landscape. Living in the Bay Area is a constant monetary struggle, especially for artists, there’s no surprise there. I think it gets us all pretty down sometimes – my coping mechanism is to go ride my bike somewhere beautiful. Cycling allows me to explore the scenery of California and contributes to my perspective as a painter. Riding in this city is a never ending fight but it all seems worth it when you make it across the bridge. It seems Golden Gate has become my symbol for the so-called California Dream.  

Embroidered patch of a paint brush and rose painting in progress by Laura Rokas.

SFACC: You're originally from Canada. What are some of the difficulties you experience being on a student visa? There are certainly limits to your current situation.

LR: Yeah, it’s awful. I feel very at home here and I have met some amazing people who inspire me and that I couldn’t imagine my life without, really. But if I don’t play my cards right, I’ll have to leave all of this behind after my year of ‘optional practical training’ is over in July. A student visa in this country is very limiting in terms of work, right now I’m only allowed to have a job which pertains to my degree. Good luck finding a good paying job in an art field in San Francisco. It’s especially frustrating as a North American, c’mon just let me hang out here for a bit you bullies!! I do eventually plan on moving back to Canada. Being a second class citizen for years takes a toll on your spirit. Not too excited about living in Trump’s America anyway.  

SFACC: Can you talk about your alter ego cardboard hand? How have you incorporated that into your studio practice and into the work you exhibit? What are your intensions for yourself by using that hand as a figure in your work?

Ceramic sculptures mimicking cardboard properties.

LR: I’ve created a sort of narrative with the cardboard hands. I started off using them as a stand in for my hands, but they’ve taken on an identity of their own. There’s a distinct landscape that I used over and over again in my work – the blue sky and the green mountains. I’ve started seeing this as the world I’ve made for the cardboard hands to govern. I feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein and I have to make a space for my creation to live and objects for it to interact with. The hands are rascals though, I don’t even know if they have a body, but they also want to start creating their own art work. Maybe they see me sewing and building and they want to participate. I have a little joke that they’re the one who make all the faux-cardboard ceramics. In my more recent paintings, the hand have been interacting with the real world, maybe we’ll end up collaborating or maybe they’ll try to overthrow me, we’ll see.

SFACC: Can you talk about the videos you do - and how the figure is in our world but it’s not her world, so how does she fit in? Like what are you doing with the hands? It seems like a lot of fun.

LR: I’ve starting making short videos of the hands doing everyday things that I do, embroidering, making coffee, watering the plant, painting. The hands are larger than life and they kind of just flap around just barely able to accomplish things. These definitely started out as a joke, just me laughing at how ridiculous this all is, but people are responding really well to them. I plan on making more.

SFACC: There are several other recurring images and objects in your work. Can you talk about some of them like the rose, butterfly, snake, baseball (cubs), cats again. 

LR: Yeah, a lot of the symbols I use are kitsch and pervasive in pop culture. Despite that, I still find value in them. There’s a complex intentional world of personal imagery going on. For instance, the snake and the cat are always fighting each other, sort of a representation of internal struggle – not really good vs evil, but 2 sides of a personality, I’m a Gemini, after all, born in the year of the snake.   

There is a folktale about the Maneki Neko lucky cat where a woman’s cat is accidentally slain while trying to protect her from a venomous snake. The swordsman who had killed her cat, thinking that it was trying to attack her when it was actually trying to warn her of a hiding snake, felt so guilty that he had a carving of her cat made by the best woodcarver in the land. My cat was 16 years old when he died on February 13th 2013 after dodging as many near death experiences as I have. He appears in countless different forms all throughout my work, as a guardian, as a good luck charm and a companion.

I’ve recently really gotten into baseball - I couldn’t resist the Cubs World Series victory. Montréal lost its baseball team, the Expos (named after the hugely popular 1967 world fair held there) in 2004. One of my best friends is from Chicago and she and her family are big Cubbie’s fans. I made the Cubs good luck patch at the beginning of the series against Cleveland and I'm pretty sure that’s the reason why they won. Ok, just joking, but it was my homage to the team’s fans I guess. It was pretty cool to watch the last game, like a 30 for 30 episode (ESPN's sports documentary series) being written right in front of me.

The color red is prominent in Laura's work - as blood, nail polish, roses, and more.

SFACC: You created a kind of physical environment for you work, through including the green fur. Is more installation driven environments something you want to do in the future?

LR: What I really like to do is make huge paintings and sculptures, but it’s not always possible for a number of reasons. I want to feel submerged in a world, feel like I’m interacting with it just by walking through it. Painting walls and creating an environment through installation is a way for me to create this feeling, but it also allows me to have little pockets of intimate moments with smaller scale work, which is nice. Definitely going to have more installation driven work in the future- hey who knows, maybe some video while I’m at it.

Laura's braids make cameos into her work.

banana patch tucked into the back jersey pocket of a patch painting.

SFACC: Back the patches again? You mentioned that you don't sell patches you make and you don't buy patches for yourself. Can you talk about how you then do give and received patches - and need to earn them instead?

patches on Laura's jacket sleeve.

LR: I’m not really interested in commodifying the patches and I never intended to sew them onto clothing but inevitably I started putting them on my own jacket. There’s an oversaturation of online pin and patch stores that I’m not trying to be a part of – not that I dislike them, on the contrary, but they are the subject of the work, not the work itself. And of course, a lot of our imagery overlaps. I keep my own collection pretty specific; for example, all the ones on my jacket are either made by me or one of my friends. The patches are very time consuming to make, so yeah, you’ve got to earn one – Boy Scout style. Either by being a really great friend, or winning a bike race, or doing me a favor, or just by being a cool person. On the off chance that I do buy myself a patch, it’ll be a sort of destination prize. Certain state parks have gift shops with limited hours where you can buy patches, like Mount Tam and Mount Diablo. Last time we rode up Diablo we missed the gift shop by a few minutes so I didn’t even earn my patch!

Laura pointing out her Mt. Tam patch on her backpack.

SFACC: What kind of feedback have you received about the paintings with your legs? Can you talk about that painting a bit? The cycling aspect of it and the masculine/feminine expectations that you feel are relevant. 

Painting by Laura Rokas.


Laura Rokas in her cycling shoes with Zed cylcing team socks.

LR: Anyone who really knows me knows that I’m obsessed with cycling shoes and I’d wear them all the time if it was practical. They sound like high heels when you walk, which is as close as I’m ever going to get to actually wearing heels, it’s great. I guess to me, those legs in the painting are obviously feminine because they’re mine, but actually no one has commented on how hairy they are or who they belong to, which is cool I guess? Professional cyclists, male and female, shave their legs for a bunch of different reasons, all of which are superfluous in my opinion. Then again, I’ll also wear lipstick on a 100 mile ride if I feel like it so what do I know? I guess it’s a sign that I’m no pro, or that I ride by my own rules (it’s the latter). Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a strong female cycling community where no one cares. But the reality is that as well as names like Coppi, Anquetil, Lemond, Indurain and Froome are known, Beryl Burton, Marianne Martin, Jeannie Longo, Inga Thomson (power braid queen) and Marianne Vos have sported similar jerseys with less pay and acclaim.  

TEARS OF RAGE by Laura Rokas is on view now at Guerrero Gallery through January 7. Also on view at Guerrero Gallery, Purple by Sofie Ramos and Linda Geary.
The gallery is open December 27-31, 12-6pm, 1465 Custer Ave. 

Thank you so much Laura Rokas for taking the time to talk with us!
To stay updated visit Laura's website and follow her on Instagram @laurarokas.