This year I was flattered to have been asked to contribute an essay for the 2012 Charlotte Street Award winner exhibtion at the H+R Block Artspace. This award, given out by the commendable Charlotte Street Foundation, is one of the highest awards given to visual artists in the Kansas City area. The three fellows each recieve a $10,000 unrestricted grant and have their work included in an exhibition. This essay was published in the brochure that accompanied the show. Congrats to Luke Rocha, Anne Austin Pearce, and Marcus Cain!
Learn more about the exhibition here
More about the Charlotte Street Foundation here
More about Luke Rocha here
First and foremost, Luke Rocha is a collector. His process – part archiving and part rejuvenating – synthesizes the cultural ephemera inherent to a city. His studio is overflowing with old books, magazines, posters, signs, bits of furniture, knick-knacks, and outdated musical equipment. At first glance, this mass of stuff can seem overwhelming and chaotic, but careful inspection reveals that organization and editing are crucial skills for Rocha. Picking up a practice started by Marcel Duchamp, handed off to Robert Rauschenberg and seasoned by contemporaries like Gabriel Orozco, Rocha’s output includes photography, installation, collage, zines, sculpture, and music. As a self-trained artist, his work displays a refreshingly academic-less aesthetic that blends ubiquitous mysticism, hypnotic symbols, vintage erotica, and nostalgic pop culture.
Rocha’s work relies on a carefully attuned eye that is always on watch for source material in the everyday. Focusing on the “underbelly of society” and the “ramshackle Midwest” Rocha addresses the politics of gender, race, class, and religion. In Analogue Apache (2011) we see a Native American mandala fashioned from mirrored magnets, feathers, a hubcap, and a modified aluminum grill that Rocha found in an abandoned school. The ominous spherical mirror, reminiscent of the domes used to conceal surveillance cameras, acts as an eye looking out to viewers while offering back their image reflected. Perhaps an artifact from some modern day mystic, this work asks viewers to question the place of spirituality in other cultures as well as their own lives.
It is inevitable that Rocha’s work will reference Kansas City or the Midwest at large because the people and places around him feed his process. In Midtown Survival Kit Rocha offers an emergency supply package in the form of an overflowing suitcase of crucifixes and praying hands atop a sermon stand. This reference to the abundance of religious paraphernalia found in impoverished neighborhoods certainly speaks to midtown KC, but could apply to most any American city.
Photography is a means not an end for Rocha. In an ongoing practice, he explores rundown or derelict Americana. Rather than starting with printed material or found objects, Rocha uses the city itself as his source, and treats the camera as a tool to cut and paste it back together. In this sense, the practice of photography runs parallel with collage. In Polaroid Studies 2005-2012 we see Polaroid’s -a quickly fading but nostalgic favorite of the DIY photographer- set into hand-me-down frames given to the artist by friends and family. Already charged with the history of housing other people’s beloved images, these frames are weathered and lack the conventional mounting of fine art photography. They act as a solemn metaphor for the fractured framework of the society we face today. Images of storefront windows, hand painted signs, billboards, pets, parents and youths create a timely portrait of both the community member and the community itself.