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It’s the un-coolness of Steve Rogers’ terracotta reliefs that makes them so cool. They look quaint, slightly antique, a little comic, loosely reminiscent of souvenir-shop tchotchkes perhaps because—not in spite—of their careful craft. Rogers’ work is figurative, like Duane Hanson, only sweeter, or like Ben Shan before the Ab-Exers took his thunder. The work of a bard without too many pretensions. In Spectator Sport—his current show at AWHRHWAR, curated by artists Anthony Lepore and Michael Henry Hayden—panoramas of boxing matches (and the surrounding hustle) hang alongside reliefs of U.S. soldiers playing tourist in Latin America. Rogers made all these works in the 1980s, probing masculine tropes while neither celebrating nor deriding them. This neutrality, portrayed in skillful detail with a dose of kitsch, probably does more to countercheck cultural mythologies than any sleek conceptualism could.
In AWHRHWAR’s small Highland Park space, Rogers’ modestly-sized reliefs look larger than they are. Fight Night #3 (1984) shows bodies, most male, crowding outside the Olympic Theater in vintage downtown L.A. Men lean into each other as if about to tangle, and dramatic plumes float up from cigars. In Rogers’ other boxing reliefs, crowd members move just as tensely as the fighters.
The military tourist reliefs on the adjoining walls are denser, so dimensional they have to sit on shelves, and colorful. The expansiveness of Tikal Tourists (1985) impresses, even as the narrative unnerves: on the left, white people in summery cloths poke around the ancient chambers of Tikal; one bushy haired man with a gun, the foreign other, interrupts a blond woman’s voyeuristic bliss; then, on the right side a cadre of U.S. soldiers in fatigues with guns line up at the base of the storied pyramid. The soldiers in Honduran Holiday (1985) point their cameras at intricate Mayan monuments.
Honduras became a U.S. military strong hold under Reagan, a base for the U.S. to insert itself in the politics of surrounding countries, and commit still-unaddressed human rights abuses. In Rogers’ reliefs, the violence is buried but the complicity is palpable. The soldiers, just by being there, play into an Imperialist entitlement so much bigger than themselves. They’re instruments of the state and—literally—of Rogers, figures that allow him to sharply caricature the gulf between individual, immediate experience, and bigger, ominous realities. His soldiers are in awe, his boxers and fans lost in the moment; their pleasure understandable, even beautiful, but reliant on a culture that awards violent power-grabs.
Steve Rogers: Spectator Sport, Curated by Michael Henry Hayden and Anthony Lepore, runs from October 18–November 10, 2018 at AWHRHWAR (6074 York Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90065).