New York

Ry Rocklen

Marc Jancou | New York

Los Angeles artist Ry Rocklen’s fascination with the “soul residue” of discarded objects leads him to create sculptures that, while not anthropomorphic, possess many human qualities: tenderness, a complicated history, resilience despite apparent fragility. “Good Heavens,” the artist’s first exhibition in New York since the 2008 Whitney Biennial, emphasized that the seemingly childlike or quasi-mystical lens through which he views the world’s detritus is conjoined with a talent for drawing out and communicating the essential dignity in whatever catches his eye. Yet his alchemical transformations—a better word may be resuscitations—sidestep the conceptual concerns of many other artists who deploy ready-made objects in their work; one doesn’t sense Rocklen is too interested the theoretical issues raised by Duchamp and his heirs. Instead, the affective power granted his sculptures by their art-world context seems to be, in his view, an extension of his scavenged items’ own intrinsic nobility.

In the gallery’s main room, triangular tiles, made from a claylike material and covered with grids of pennies, were laid over much of the floor, giving the gallery a burnished copper glow. Three hexagonal openings in the arrangement served as negative-space pedestals for freestanding sculptures. On the Fourth Day (all works 2009) is a limp, folded-over mattress encased in resin and pin-striped with iridescent purple tiles. Rocklen has stated that the mattress was found on day four of his hunt in Los Angeles alleys, but given the tiles’ winking reflections, the title also calls to mind the Book of Genesis: On the fourth day, God created lights in the firmament. “We are all in the gutter,” as Oscar Wilde once observed, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” Unbrella is a ripped-up patio umbrella coated in cornflower-blue epoxy putty and jammed into the seat of a wooden chair. The sculpture possesses the least formal allure of those presented here, and its reliance on a titular pun (reminiscent of Rocklen’s earlier works) seemed somewhat out of place. A third work, Siren, transforms a threadbare window curtain, anchored on a thin metal base and stiffened with epoxy putty, into a wavy, midnight-blue fence or hedgerow, its tattered ends reaching skyward. Rocklen has also driven hundreds of silver- and copper-colored tacks through the material, and the reflections captured in their small circular heads animate the work. Siren’s magnetism is potent yet oddly difficult to explain.

Rocklen’s role as an object healer stems from his interest in diverse notions of health and spirituality, two interrelated themes that underpin other works in the show. On the walls surrounding the aforementioned freestanding sculptures hung a series of nine “Magic Number Ponchos,” linen garments backed with pastel-colored cotton. These works each make consistent use of one number: Not only is Magic Number Poncho (Three Threes) cut so that it has three sides, but the runic design on its chest is made from joining together three numeral 3s. Similarly treated is the octagonal poncho with a flowerlike emblem created from eight 8s. As in some of the artist’s earlier solo shows, a braided rope was strung along the top of the wall like a frieze. Here it wound its way up a stairwell to a mezzanine gallery, where one discovered that from it hung a tondo painting of a pie-chart design in Miami-bright colors. Based on “health medallions” Rocklen once made with elementary-school art students, the piece, in its unusual presentation, also recalls the Thai tradition of wrapping strings around buildings for protection. As with Rocklen’s own faith in the castoffs he uses for his sculptures, the sculptures included here require a certain suspension of disbelief by the viewer. For those willing to grant it, the rewards were many.

Brian Sholis