New York

Bunny Rogers, Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, 2016, video, color, sound, 13 minutes 16 seconds.

Bunny Rogers, Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, 2016, video, color, sound, 13 minutes 16 seconds.

Bunny Rogers

Greenspon

Bunny Rogers, Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, 2016, video, color, sound, 13 minutes 16 seconds.

What could easily have been too much—a confusion of references or a crowding of ideas—instead formed an economical and coherent network of symbols in “Columbine Cafeteria,” Bunny Rogers’s debut exhibition at Greenspon Gallery. Enchanted mops, Halloween apples, institutional furniture, rubber garbage cans, ballet slippers, a storybook key, and stained-glass panels were among the curious, mournful, and ominous objects on view in this poetic, almost austere, installation. They were part of a highly stylized, fantasy re-creation of the suburban Colorado high-school cafeteria where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began the 1999 massacre that took fifteen lives (including, finally, their own), but the show’s power was derived, in part, from its chilling points of contact with historically accurate detail.

An image search reveals that the purple chairs Rogers uses in this work, each with two slots in its molded-plastic back, like pondering or scared cartoon eyes, are not anthropomorphized characters of her own design. Rather, they’re replicas—or dead stock—of the mass-produced chairs that bore witness to the horror. One thinks of how Robert Gober makes use of defamiliarized elements, handmade readymades, and unsettling references to the body in his environments. Cafeteria set (all works 2016) features a round table, like the ones where Columbine kids ate, but much larger, expanded to seat fourteen. Two of the empty, neatly pushed-in chairs—meant to be Klebold’s and Harris’s, maybe—are different, gold instead of purple. Scattered across the table, carved apples with ghoulish and sad faces lit up by votive candles are reminiscent of a particularly poignant crime-scene photo (a top search hit) in which a half-eaten piece of fruit rests among wrappers and cans of Sprite. The nearby sculptures Reject chair set (1) and (2) are stacked pairs of the oddball gold chairs, charred and melted, as some were by the heat of the killers’ improvised explosives.

The front gallery was brightly lit, as a school lunchroom would be, and beautiful melancholy music—instrumental versions of Elliott Smith songs—floated in from the back room, which was dark. There, fake snow fell, extending the strange, wintry setting of the video Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, which played on the far wall. In it, a lanky cartoon girl, dressed in a ragged skirt and bra top with mismatched shoes, plays a grand piano and drinks wine in a cavernous interior—a 3-D rendering of the cafeteria, its tile floor collecting snow. In the statement accompanying the exhibition’s premiere at Berlin’s Société earlier this year, Rogers explains the significance of the girl she calls Mandy, an unnamed character who appears in the “Snowflake Day” episode of Clone High, an animated television series that aired briefly on MTV in the early ’00s, in which clones of disparate historical figures are classmates. To Rogers, Mandy, who is voiced by the teen pop star Mandy Moore, symbolizes the power of female friendship to disrupt internalized misogyny. By teaching Joan of Arc’s hostile teen clone about the spirit of Snowflake Day, a fictional holiday about “appreciating friends and supporting one another,” Mandy transforms her, Rogers explains. “With tears in her eyes, Joan calls Mandy an angel,” she writes about the episode’s conclusion, adding, “I’ve sometimes felt that way about female friends.” In the arched stained-glass triptych Lisa Bright and Dark (for Andrea) mounted in the front gallery, Joan and Mandy face each other, haloed girls grieving the devastating consequences of Harris and Klebold’s blood pact.

Rogers was nine years old at the time of the Columbine massacre, that fin-de-millennium media event that produced shocking new icons of alienated masculinity and remapped the American high school as a site of spectacular violence. So a child’s perspective merges with sophisticated hindsight in this work, as the artist confronts the mediated nature of collective memory and its reverberations in personal mythologies. Rogers’s distinct and earnest visual lexicon draws from the strategies of fan fiction—its painstaking passion, intertextual transpositions, and unfettered speculation—and roots itself in ornate, disaffected, knowing strains of girl culture. Perhaps more than anything, girl-style sentimentality defined “Columbine Cafeteria”; Rogers embraces the debased quality as an honorable one, an unsaccharine spiritual aesthetic suitable for the expression of deep feeling and clear-eyed critique.

Johanna Fateman