Project Series 15: Jason Rogenes
Jason Rogenes' installation, project 9.03g, and its accompanying catalogue reflect the artist's provocative take on life at the beginning of the 21st century. For the last seven years, Rogenes, who works in Los Angeles and New York, has been producing art that incorporates post-consumer waste—the material we typically throw away, such as Styrofoam, cardboard, tape, etc. He uses these non-traditional media in a body of work that explores popular culture and consumerism and that contrasts a high-tech aesthetic with low-tech packing materials. Rogenes transforms found waste and everyday material into sculptures and installations that address issues of monumental scale, visual complexity, and playful exploration. Combining ideas of industrialization and space technology with a sense of fantasy and wonder, Rogenes creates sophisticated accumulations that resonate within the cultural environment of Southern California as well as within the broader contemporary critical debate.
The artist’s creative process reflects a more humble approach to sculptural materials than the traditional modernist view of sculpture as a solid, unified object. Moving beyond the purely formal, Rogenes employs a handmade aesthetic that begins with his collecting of cast off materials, continues in the intuitive process of carving and gluing the cardboard and the Styrofoam, and culminates in the careful balance of glowing white Styrofoam sculptures nestled in cardboard caves. This transformation of the spaces his work inhabits results in a dramatic exploration of scale and a blurring of the boundaries between sculpture and architecture.
Jason Rogenes’ exhibition was the fifteenth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Julie Joyce's Essay
Jason Rogenes' sculptures and installations conjure a phantom architecture. Constructed from mundane materials, the result of his Styrofoam, polystyrene, cardboard, and neon-lit conglomerations is an aesthetic that exists in the atmosphere far above and beyond Earth. His works appear as fantastical interplanetary vehicles, space stations, and peculiar contraptions that seem less like sculpture than something designed by NASA. What is most engaging about Rogenes' objects and environments, however, is not just the artist's strange vision of what lies ahead in terms of technology and navigation, but his work's manifold references to history. For these sculptures not only predict the future, but, perhaps more poignantly, critique the future of the past.
Our collective fascination with outer space, although now waning as quickly as the national budget spreads thin, was at an all-time fever pitch from the 1960s through the 1980s. Think of grammar school field trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Museum of Science and Industry, and the seemingly countless launches at Cape Canaveral. The message for any late baby boomer was this: We would be traveling freely into the outer atmosphere in our lifetime. Rogenes' work, a product of postmodernism and the post-Challenger generation, convincingly suggests that, in the end, the future has become more engaging through visions of the past than from those of the present.
Through their adept dynamics between the microcosmic and macrocosmic, Rogenes' complex, dramatically-lit reliefs, on the planet commonly known as Hollywood, might pass for elaborate sci-fi film sets. Standing in front of one of the artist's installations may easily remind one of Stanley Kubrick's "2001 a Space Odyssey" (1968) or Douglas Trumbull's "Silent Running" (1972) (actually, the special effects of both were produced by the accomplished Trumbull). From a distance Rogenes' work appears, like many of the instruments and environments in these films, neat and precise, high-tech and meticulous. Up close, similar to viewing a "behind the scenes" documentary of a major motion picture (or even one of those Los Angeles Times spots that run between movie previews), the scene disintegrates into what it actually is: budget items and detritus arranged to masterful effects.
The significance of Rogenes' work lies within a broader discussion of progress and the myth of utopia, or, perhaps, the schism that is the result of the utopic/dystopic shift ever present within contemporary society. Rogenes' works imparts the same nostalgia found in works by classic science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, thinkers that make us long for the days of actually believing that the future was full of the promises of flying cars and teleporting. However, Rogenes' use of the discarded trappings of consumer society—not even products themselves but the containers used to protect the products during transport—is even closer to the images so vividly detailed in the cyberpunk writings of William Gibson or Neil Stephenson. Like these authors, Rogenes participates wholeheartedly in concepts of bricolage, adaptive reuse, and random clustering—ideas symptomatic of a condition that is postmodern, if not simply defined by failure.
Remaining consistent throughout Rogenes' work is a type of agglomeration, an accumulation that achieves critical mass until a shift of scale occurs. The dynamics of this shift provoke an ambiguity of scale that make the artist's constructions seem impossibly large while at the same time infinitesimally small. Caught up within this dynamic, the viewer is led to believe that he or she is seeing something that isn't really there. This is not an unfamiliar strategy in art: the relief constructions of Lee Bontecou, an early progenitor of sci-fi related work, would be a fitting example in this case. Yet it is also the model in which technology thrives, a spectral presence of need with no real use other than the empty continuation of itself.
Similar to this solipsistic end game of illusions and unfulfilled desire, and much like our attempts at existing within the machinations of a consumer-based society, there is a frustration that Rogenes' work conveys. This unsettling feeling seems to grow even as his work shifts from particulars to something that resembles more of a composite landscape, with tall columns rising up into the air, stretching, potentially endlessly, without any ordinarily conceivable purpose. Less like traditional systems of support than the electrical transmitters, cellular antennae, and media towers that propagate rapidly across our 21st-century landscape, these are not only forms on which we have come to rely, but forms that we cannot help but build. As encountered through the peculiar imagination of Jason Rogenes, ours is a considerable fate to behold.
Phillip Martin's Interview
Jason Rogenes takes his cues—and his materials—from the dumpsters behind the chain stores of our great nation, in which styrofoam and cardboard amass in unfathomable piles at the end of a day's deliveries.
Unlike the Minimalists of the 1960s (Robert Morris, for example, or Donald Judd) who used industrial processes to create objects that looked like products of industry, Rogenes begins where the logic of industry breaks down, at the excretion end of the cycle of consumption. The Styrofoam forms he selects are rough approximations of the negative space between household appliances and the cardboard shipping containers in which they travel. Here "truth to materials" means following the internal logic of a form that is a product of happenstance more than deliberation. Opening up a sense of mystery in these familiar images and forms, his work reveals, among other things, that the means of today's artists are often a roll of duct tape, a mat knife, and a staple gun. The art store makes way for the hardware store, and the modern blank slate is a landscape filled with postconsumer waste and a mind packed with the processed commodities of the pop-culture industry.
I interviewed the artist via telephone at his new home in Newcastle, Maine.
PHILIP MARTIN: Do you feel that your work is about Southern California?
JASON ROGENES: I don't feel it's necessarily about Southern California, but it is relevant to it. Though I get a wide array of responses there, there seems to be an awareness of the material—Styrofoam—and a desire to do something with it, but not knowing what. My sculpture is not the answer, but it is an answer. The material becomes something else. It's not necessarily crafty, yet it has that in it. The hand-made aspect of my work is very important. It's about going out with a matte knife, a glue gun, and collecting material. I don't have a plan. Don’t have a ruler. I don't have a straightedge. I just start gluing and carving away.
PM: Those tools are so specific.
JR: A friend and I were talking about art stores, because there are not many up here in Maine. You miss going to the art store, but at the same time I get all my art supplies from Home Depot. I go there and go crazy. That is a general vein in contemporary art. It's a nice, exciting place to go and find things to build. When I was living in LA making the work, Styrofoam was very available, almost to the point that I felt that I could make anything out of the material.
PM: Because there was so much of it?
JR: I could find anything I wanted. Coming to Maine, where there isn't a Best Buy and Circuit City on every street corner, or even every town, I found I was making the work and suddenly—I'm not kidding—Styrofoam just started appearing in my studio. People would give it to me, or I'd collect it at random. I got rid of a lot of the work when I left Los Angeles. I started to re-look at my work and build upon what I had done. I started to think about it differently in a structural sense. It felt like a rejuvenation of the work on a different and more intimate level.
PM: How did you get into using these kinds of materials7
JR: It started out as an interest in exploring pop culture, taking photographs and painting, always interested in the material. When I started to really work with Styrofoam, it became a love affair, because it flowed. You can make really extravagant works by simple means. By minimizing the material within the space—Styrofoam, cardboard and light—there's no need to paint it. It breathes and accentuates its own dynamic as sculpture.
PM; Did you go to packing materials looking for that or did it come out of working with them?
JR: The pieces I make now come out of working with the material. I was taking a lot of photographs and started collecting film boxes and opening them. I started making paintings and collages based on these open boxes. It started to look like video game landscapes and I was really excited about that. But I wanted to make something that was present in space. I've always been really excited—when I have a space—about doing installation work. I worked with cardboard, just manipulating it, along with the Styrofoam. I just started to collect it until I had enough to play with. They started to work together, like Legos, and there was an aspect of play and fun. I get a form. I get excited about what I can do with it, what it means and how it can have a fantasy function. I make other things, but the excitement comes in making this kind of work. When I have a space, like with the last project [project 9.08f at Susanne Vielmetter LA Projects], that's the work that results.
PM: Could you work with a material other than Styrofoam at this point?
JR: I'm constantly thinking about it and am aware of other artists working with similar materials. People constantly ask me, "What if you cast that stuff?" I'm really not interested in that. I enjoy making these specific sculptures out of this material. They are models and they won't last forever. Granted, I'm not saying I won't make something out of something else. It just seems absurd to make something of permanence, so big. My current work has its own permanence. It's fragile, but it's no more fragile than glass. And it actually can be repaired easily. It's part of the work. There's something about that that I love. It's very poignant in the way that the art works, too. From starting out, not thinking about it as an object, but rather an experience. Especially this project I made in Los Angeles. Now the piece is down. The cardboard is all gone but the Styrofoam pieces and lights are all saved. I'm not quite sure where that residue will end up. It quite literally could end up as just that Styrofoam piece somewhere. It also could end up as one part of something larger: a new installation re-working the piece.
PM; By recycling materials, you move away from the bombast of a giant bronze sculpture. It's very humble and modest that you don't want to make some huge thing, but it's also appropriate; when you're young, you make work out of materials that don't last. Look at Mike Kelly.
JR: Paintings on butcher paper.
PM: Yeah. You're poor. You can't afford it and you don't necessarily need to do it anyway. But It's also that this material is prevalent in Los Angeles since the city is such a huge consumer culture and is so mall-oriented. I don't mean that in a pejorative way because I love Los Angeles. But that's a part of it.
JR: Yeah. I grew up in a mall.
PM: There's a store you've mentioned. Is it called Wide Screen TVs?
JR: Oh, Paul's. Paul's TV: the King of Big Screens. There's an advertisement for him as you drive back into LA from the south. You'll see him with a big crown on his head. If I had to, I'd just go there to collect material. There are, like, 20 boxes that five of us could fit inside of filled with Styrofoam.
PM: That's grotesque
JR: They have 12 trucks that deliver them every day!
PM: That's just incredible. It's as if, in the quest for art materials, you've happened into this quadrant of commerce that is as odd as the images you create.
JR: There is a little bit of excitement there. It's funny going to those places. Once a cop pulled up and asked what I was doing in the dumpster, and when I told him, he started naming others: "Oh, I've seen Styrofoam in this dumpster; you should go down there." I often wonder what I look like, but I try not to get too hung up on it.
PM: Let's talk about imagery. The pieces look like spacecraft. Why is that?
JR: It's hard not to see them as spacecraft. In the last piece I tried to include more gesture. It's a little looser than what I had done before. I also got more involved with cardboard and making the Styrofoam piece simultaneously. Though the imagery is pretty loose, I knew there would be this long thing hanging above a stairwell and bending back into the space. The imagery is fed by the material and how it is placed in the space. Obviously the Styrofoam would look different alone.
PM; The viewer sees the image of the spacecraft first, then becomes conscious of the material. What do you think about that?
JR: I feel as though there is a certain aspect of me trying to elude the surface. In project 9.08 I eluded the surface by lighting it up. If you were to inspect the material, there would be fingerprints on it, but it looks pristine when it starts to glow with the addition of light. The cardboard is similarly affected by the light and also by the folds. The cardboard-ness of it is eluded. There is an aspect that I'm working towards: a cinematic image, a photographic image, When I'm making it, I'm thinking about a "shot." I take that assessment as I work through it. I love its three-dimensionality because you can't get it all in one shot. When I make drawings I fight against this. You can't really capture it on film. You have to experience it.
PM: You're constantly talking about transforming space and what it feels like to be in the space, yet at the same time you're attending to the cinematic aspect of a piece, and making an image. That's an interesting play. Do you see your experience as a painter and photographer as a part of this?
JR; I'm definitely building from those ideas, exploring painting and photography, but I also want to explore the aspect of three-dimensionality- more so than the sense of surface. I want to explore the three-dimensional realm, the installation, the aspect of being in the work, A reality on its own. That's there within a painting, but perhaps not as tangibly. I also like the reference to accumulation. The Styrofoam components and the sculptures could accumulate, and have. As the scale gets bigger you can't help but see things in them. Details look like engine parts because of the structure of the Styrofoam. There is a function to it that seems to make sense, but it doesn't quite make sense. It looks like a model for something.
PM: The science fiction aspect of your work looms in a lot of viewers' minds.
JR: The science fiction is there. It's a driving, initiating force in the work. I love popular imagery. What science fiction does a lot of times is latch onto something popular or tantalizing, but with a greater idea. That's the fascination for me with science fiction. To try to make something that has that same quality, not just that looks like a fantastical spacecraft, but has that sense of the unknown. Something that you can't easily explain.