Americas

Laura Rokas
Once in Two Moons

Like most of Laura Rokas’s hand-stitched works, Once in Two Moons was made while she sat in bed, imbuing the work with a tender sense of domestic intimacy. She worked with the heavy batting-stuffed fabric draped over her bent legs, pushing and pulling delicate embroidery floss through the quilt’s nearly 50 individual elements. Despite the strange, and at times menacing imagery, the fact that Once in Two Moons is a quilt—an object that is usually functional or decorative—is inescapable. But this mingling of associations is exactly what makes the work feel so fresh.

The scene’s dominant figure—a faceless woman whose blood red, dagger-like fingernails, polka dot jacket, and jet black hair resemble a sort of avatar of the artist—surveys a chaotic scene that might be described as a “cute apocalypse” (a phrase Rokas says is characteristic of her work in general). Parts of the tableau could be drawn from a spooky underworld. A two-headed ghost, a leathery snake, a voyeur in the clouds, and a cackling mouth with uneven teeth congregate amidst a catastrophic combination of weather conditions: rain, lighting, a ground splitting earthquake, and a fiery volcanic eruption. Others are oddly specific and seemingly nonsensical—a pink flag stuck into an orange traffic cone, or a vehicle engulfed in flames—until you know that Rokas stumbled across the roadside sculpture one day in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and the cop car belonged to Rokas’s friend and was set on fire while parked on the street in Oakland. And if you look closely, you’ll notice a cell phone peeking out of the woman’s pocket, its calendar reading Friday the 13th—a superstitious day for many, and in particular for Rokas, as she was involved in a terrible accident on that date many years ago. She no longer goes out when that auspicious time rolls around, but perhaps her alternate self in another universe did, and is now bearing witness to the consequences. Regardless of the meaning one reads into it, Once in Two Moons opens a pandora’s box of questions about the choices we make day to day, and how much our understanding of it is influenced by the images we ingest, and the events we encounter.

Laura Rokas is a painter, ceramicist, and textile artist. While her formal training is primarily in painting, Rokas’s practice embodies a spirit of dedicated amateurism characteristic of a generation that grew up figuring out how to make creative use of new technologies—and eventually—the materials of the internet and digital communication more broadly. Like early users of the internet who patched together elementary code they copy and pasted from other pages to create their own websites, or budding designers who messed around with Microsoft Paint to make custom backgrounds and images for their computers, Rokas goes about building something new by testing out very basic methods with whatever materials she is drawn to. This approach informs every aspect of her work, and is something she started practicing early on. Both Rokas’s mother and sister are quilters, and she learned by watching them, listening to their stories, and asking questions. But she mostly developed her textile (and ceramic) skills by doing. For Rokas, there’s no “right” way to do something—she says, “Did it get done? Then you did it right.” Rokas’s work incorporates her lived experience and remixes it with visual references, symbols, and themes drawn from pop culture, literature, and science fiction. In particular, she likes to rework familiar symbols because of their psychological power. As she says, it’s easy to forget how influential they can be because we’re so constantly inundated by them; but even basic combinations of color and shape are powerful, and we’re attracted to those things on a base level. The potency of her work comes from her ability to exploit and recontextualize this familiar pop culture iconography in a way that may at first seem simplistic. But if you spend any more than a passing moment with it, everything starts to fall off a cliff. Rokas’s interpretations gravitate toward the uncanny, dealing with alternate realities, twins, doubles, and doppelgängers—the realm of “what if,” “what could have been,” and the just plain weird. And since Rokas never offers a Rosetta Stone to decode the work, the viewer is often left with more questions than answers, and that’s just fine with her.