Chicago

Clare E. Rojas

Kavi Gupta

Welcome to the world of Clare E. Rojas, where bunnies with bloodshot eyes sniff flowers, swans sport red stripes, blood runs from ladies’ mouths to the sky, and men brandish flowers like clubs. Spin whatever tales you wish to explain these misshapen flora and fauna—just don’t look to the artist to tell you the whole story.

What you can expect from Rojas, however, is a consistently idiosyncratic mode of drawing that borrows equally from fairy tales, children’s books, Russian matryoshka dolls, quilting, and Amerindian textiles; a few hippies round out the historical tour of American popular aesthetics. Sorting out Rojas’s diverse references is less compelling an exercise than simply basking in the strangeness of their synthesis. Untitled (Girl with Phoenix), 2009, a large gouache on paper, so sweetly surreal it nearly bursts, combines almost all of the artist’s major sources. A schematically rendered moon and half-sun hang above a bird with richly rendered feathers, which clings to a woman with a decorative roundel for a head, a new age necklace around her neck, and a string of stars in place of hair. A miniature horse kneels at the base of her starry braid.

Dozens of smaller gouaches offered these and other elements in slightly tamer combinations. A series of them hung awkwardly but endearingly from wooden pegs on a cornflower blue wall, suggesting the possibility of endless reconfiguration and retelling. On two other walls, additional small studies were placed between large-scale tableaux whose more fully developed backgrounds turn the charming into something unsettling, even uncanny, as figures suddenly appear in interiors that look alarmingly real, rather than the nowhere land of the placeless works on paper.

A surprising installation filled the fourth wall, featuring large-scale quilt motifs in wood appliqué. Blown up to mural scale, the designs seem like full-fledged characters with stories of their own to tell. Unfortunately, this decorative experiment is interrupted by a bookshelf filled with a group of simple portraits that lack Rojas’s characteristic symbolic and referential texture; they accomplished little more than reminding us of the artist’s place in the Mission School, whose humble, DIY aesthetic has for the last decade or so been a mainstay in the San Francisco gallery scene. Also on the bookshelf are hardcover books and paperbacks that range from Valley of the Dolls and Walden to a Guide to the Baltic States and a popular fertility book. This seems to suggest a readiness on Rojas’s part to jump on the bandwagon of artists such as Carol Bove, who’ve made an often pretentious practice of displaying maddeningly obscure books and other found historical objects as a way to bring their content into an exhibition. The inexplicability of Rojas’s chosen titles and their chockablock arrangement suggest she is less interested in revealing her sources than in critiquing the presumed need to do so. Either way, her references are plainly readable in the works themselves, offering generous space for the audience to indulge in freewheeling aesthetic and narrative pleasure. Some stories are told well enough to need neither footnotes nor bibliographies. Rojas’s are, too—when she leaves them be.

Lori Waxman