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In the preface to John McPhee’s creative-nonfiction classic Oranges, the author describes encountering the fruit in the early ’60s at the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station. Here, wired-up citrus were monitored as they “breathed in” oxygen and expelled carbon dioxide, “as oranges do until they die.”1 Produce figured heavily in Ry Rocklen’s latest video work, Food Group: Episode 1.1 (2019). While the first two thirds of the video, which clocks in at slightly under 30 minutes, register as a sizzle reel of studio shenanigans slowed to half-time—friends vamp in costume as a slice of pizza or a box of popcorn and are periodically interrupted by animation of the foods they pose as—the final eight minutes are a tender ode to Ojai Pixie tangerines. Their lives are charted by the artist in conversation with an off-screen friend as they tour her family’s grove. The camera pans over disembodied hands gently inspecting and sorting the tangerines as the friend describes their devoted followers, who track the fruit down at local farmer’s markets. In contrast to the preceding footage, saturated with moments of human engagement that somehow leave the viewer feeling left out, one is struck in this clip by the profound import of these fruits for their consumers (specifically the East Asian community of South Central) as well as for the custodians who nurture and harvest them—a constellation of lives bound together by citrus.
Like McPhee, Rocklen has consistently explored the rich interior narratives latent in everyday objects—as far back as his contribution to the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in which he encouraged children and their caretakers to create sculptures out of scavenged detritus, which were subsequently installed in the museum. For his most recent body of work on view at Honor Fraser, Rocklen invited people from his circle (friends, gallerists, studio assistants) to pose in costume as a variety of foodstuffs. Their bodies, scanned in the round, were then used to create miniature 3D- gypsum-cast sculptures spec’d to the scale of the food they personified. On a long, narrow plinth with a red-and- white checkered tablecloth were the small resulting portraits, including one of the gallerist Honor Fraser as a bunch of grapes alongside Corrina, a friend of the artist, as a strawberry. They and ten others flanked Rocklen, who was centrally positioned and dressed as a hamburger.
The actual costumes used to create the miniatures were also presented on a giant checkered sheet that flowed down from the ceiling onto the floor in the main gallery space like a photo backdrop. Rocklen rented some of the outfits but fabricated many of them, adding personal embellishments—like his own initials on the French fry costume. Observing their interiors— the inner foam shoulder pads, the chinstraps—one was reminded of the human bodies they were intended to sheathe. Peering closely into these foam and cardboard constructions, one found evidence of meticulous handiwork as well as more personal touches that were hard to see in the small 3D-printed sculptures—like a facsimile of a red human heart peeking out amid unidentified meat chunks in the taco. The costumes, here presented “in the flesh” (albeit without their wearers), had a heavier somatic presence than the miniatures themselves.
The sculptures and costumes were presided over by Mr. Pillowman (2016), a huge steel and wood armature covered in pillows, which Rocklen constructed to display a giant t-shirt for an earlier project. The titular Mr. Pillowman also features in the video, his jaw moving up and down like a ventriloquist’s puppet. “I discovered ‘Food Group’ while perusing your dreams,” he intones. He continues, “‘Food Group’ is exactly what you want. It’s exactly what you’ve been dreaming of,” further under- scoring the show’s emphasis on primal drives. Food and friends alike are crucial to sustaining a life, and one can easily relate to the impulse to combine them. But the results of this mash up, while winsome, had the curious side effect of muting the satiating aspects of both. It’s when they were extricated— as in the costumes, which bore a likeness to food but skirted the uncanny valley of verisimilitude; and the brief documentary glimpses the video offered —that one saw life depicted most compellingly.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 16.