Clare Rojas: Causing an Uproar

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Clare Rojas’ paintings are given to subverting the dominant paradigm—portraying women as strong, noble loners, animals as hard-working, and men as… naked. Okay, they’re not always naked, but when they are, they can be seen frolicking in flowers, sunbathing, looking at their asses in the mirror, and parading in front of judging tables full of bored women.

Rojas wants to shed light on the way women are treated in our culture, but she does it with a sense of humor (as in The Manipulators, a zine and animated short with Andrew Jeffrey Wright where the pair manipulates images of fashion models with Sharpie thought bubbles and Wite-Out fart clouds).Of course, not everyone thinks it’s so funny—despite the inclusion of provocative work by Terry Richardson and Ryan McGinley in the touring show Beautiful Losers, it was Rojas who caused an uproar with the authorities when she painted a large naked man on the side of a Cleveland building.

While her cartoon penises may be provocative, they’re only a part of Rojas’ art. Widely considered a part of the Mission school (along with husband Barry “Twist” McGee), Rojas draws from global folk styles in her ultra-flat 2-D fairy tales, painting joy and pain with gouache and latex on accessible materials like paper and wood. Additionally, Rojas makes music that’s as quietly beguiling as her art; as Peggy Honeywell, she has released several albums of sweet, minimal folk and recently played at San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival.

Rojas is currently working on a garden journal with Chronicle Books, as well as preparing for 2009 gallery shows at New Image Art, Kavi Gupta, and Ikon Gallery. Though the San Francisco-based artist says her favorite place is “anywhere it’s quiet,” she allowed us to interrupt her peace long enough to ask a few choice questions.

XLR8R: Are the people in your paintings people you know or people who are imagined?

Clare Rojas: They are people I know, or don’t but see almost everyday, and symbols, and metaphors for ideas. My work is a little bit autobiography, and about other people, too.

Your work is inspired by folk art, but are you a nostalgic person?

Folk art to me is anything intuitive. For me, it does not mean it is from the past. I don’t long for the past. Why would I? I love quilts and music that tells stories. I love to tell stories, so if this is folk then fine.

When did you begin making music as Peggy Honeywell? Do you think of Peggy as a character separate from yourself?

I began playing music in 2000, I think? Gosh, I can’t remember. It was when I was really depressed and working as a secretary in Philly, and painting just was not cutting it for me. I defiantly wanted to be someone other than who I was at that point, and Peggy was created. When I began, I wore a bag over my head, then it went to wigs, and now I have grown out my own hair and Clare has consumed Peggy, or vice versa, I am not sure. She is morphing into something else, something like a storyteller, and I don’t need a gimmick to that. She is becoming real.

Who is one artist, musician, or author that has really affected you?

I think authors have affected me the most. Backlash by Susan Faludi was an awakening for me.

What has been your most controversial piece, and why?

I don’t know if I paint anything controversial, but I can say that I have an entire collection of naked-man paintings that won’t sell. I am ready to bet my life on the fact that if those were naked women, I would not have that kind of inventory. The thing is, I send the naked-man money to women's shelters or Planned Parenthood, same with my penis-shaped surf wax. So far my efforts have only been a pin drop, but I guess that’s better than nothing.

About your work featuring naked men… What was the “a-ha” moment leading you to do to the first of those paintings?

Well, I guess the moment was when I got so sick and tired of walking into museums and galleries and watching all the men gaze at the naked women everywhere, and thinking, ‘God, I wish they could know what that feels like, but we would have to reverse everything.’ That is what I want to do, just so they know and stop. So I can do this with laughter and hope it is a remedy for our ills.

The objectification of women has become so intertwined that people don’t even notice it. It’s so crazy to me. The more something is perpetuated, the more normal it becomes. I, for some reason, don’t have that armor everyone else seems to develop and so every time I see something sad, it’s like my wound just opens up more and the pain is so great that for some reason laughter seems like the only reasonable response. It’s like an out-of-body experience.

What sort of work were you doing as an undergrad at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)? Does it have any bearing on what you are doing now?

RISD was a great experience. I was in printmaking, and this medium really informed how I paint, and how I use color and layer, and the size I like. In my junior year, my mom got cancer (she is in remission and doing great); I went home to help her through treatments one summer, and needed a paint other than oils, because they stank too much. I found gouache, which was non-toxic, did not smell, and produced a look that was similar to silkscreen, which I loved. So basically I could paint like a printmaker. And the Fort Thunder [art collective] folks were doing their thing and it was a magical time, every minute was challenging to keep up with but super-inspirational.

What was your most difficult moment as an artist?

I guess there are so many, but I think not knowing if I am in the right place at the right time, and not being able to control my timing in being born. I guess trying to control what I can’t and figuring out how to sort out and work on the issues of the world that I want to talk about without letting it all suffocate me in some deep, dark place. But I think that is just human, not only [specific to] artists.

What is your biggest fear?

I have a lot of demons, and answering this question feels like a bad idea.

What were you really into when you were 15?

When I was 15, I was drawing a lot of pastel portraits and painting oils in this senior citizens’ home. They all had such great stories and I loved it. I passed history by drawing my teacher and painting him a duck.

Who is one historical figure that really resonates with you?

I really think a lot about pioneer women and what they went through, how tough they were, and I would love to talk with one. And Mary Magdalene.