What’s Scott Rosenberg trying to accomplish with Snail Trail, his manic, ungainly, scattershot show at Zoya Tommy? The work is all over the place, literally. Rosenberg works in two modes: crafting fiendishly believable trompe l’oeil replicas of everyday objects like tarps, matches and little rocks, and crapping all over them with gops and drizzles of hot glue, foam fragments, paint, and scraps.
This kind of illusionistic work makes you paranoid: when I visited, the largest object in the gallery was a shrink-wrapped refrigerator on a shipping pallet. There was a dish of mints on the coffee table. Either could have been Rosenberg pieces, but neither was (I think).
Ceramic is Rosenberg’s default medium, and several works can be linked to identifiable threads of ceramic tradition: his head/vase column recalls Robert Arneson and folk art face jugs; a wall of fake Mimbres bowls are used as the bases for multimedia collages, and Rosenberg’s coulda-fooled-me trompe-l’oeil remake of a ceiling fan is in line with a long tradition of clay artists like Richard Shaw and Sylvia Hyman who were stretching their medium to simulate other objects and surfaces in the 1970s.
But what about the enormous lumpy pod/pot, growing a live tree? Or the flock of completely trashy Styrofoam-and-hot-glue assemblages hanging from the ceiling like the worst hanging orchids ever? And that dog!
Smack in the middle of the gallery, a rug-like piece sums up the incoherence of Rosenberg’s work as well as its brilliant, bizarre intensity. A 4×6-foot rectangle of luxuriant fake grass with gravel piled across one end forms a little backyard tableau. In the grass, Rosenberg has placed a perky plush toy dog and a suspiciously fecal object that could be a stick. Is the dog fetching the stick, or sniffing the turd? So far, so good. Stuffed animals on rugs are straight out of Mike Kelly’s late ’80s canon.
But it gets weirder: that fake grass rug is fake! Each of its thousands of blades is a lovingly twisted and tapered strand of green paper. Each piece of gravel is a glazed ceramic lump made to mimic an uninteresting stone. Yet the dog plopped onto this laborious simulation is a cheap, off-the shelf toy, almost like a turd itself amidst this bounty of handmade-ness. It’s a shocking waste of effort, like treading across Ai Wei Wei’s zillion hand painted sunflower seeds, but more personal: unlike Ai, who was talking about the exploitation of others, Rosenberg is exploiting himself to stage acts of self-abnegation, as if to mortify his own technical prowess and patience. It’s creepy, like watching photographer Nan Goldin proudly displaying her self-inflicted cigarette burns. I’m a little worried about him.
It’s not just the rug piece, either —Rosenberg relentlessly craps in his own nest. One whole wall of assemblages begin with handmade copies of beautiful Mimbres bowls, painted with intricate patterns, then broken and sloppily covered with fragments symbolic of decay: little mushrooms (ceramic, of course) scraps of pink foam and packaging, and gobs of slime-like plastic glue. If the takedown of sacrosanct Native American ceramic tradition wasn’t pointed enough, one collage sports the logo from a pack of American Spirit cigarettes.
Hanging by tangled strings of green excelsior like kites stuck in trees, Rosenberg’s half-dozen foam pieces abandon the fussy craft of his ceramics, becoming purely about baroque ruin. They recall the overripeness and omnivorous assimilation of Houston artist Paul Horn‘s paper collages, but without Horn’s reliance on TV and cartoon characters. Incoherent and messy, the pieces are reiterations of the woodsy mushrooms/fairies/rainbows-in-the-terrarium motif popular with anime-influenced art school kids but are sloppy and abject enough to avoid the cutes that often afflict works in this genre. Utterly ephemeral.
Seeing something in a gallery that a janitor might throw away is good for a little thrill — it undercuts the customary hierarchies among objects and jars you into looking more carefully, both in the gallery and outside in the real world. This show isn’t anyone’s idea of attractive, even mine, but it’s full of struggle and uncertainties that make it exciting. Rosenberg doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s got an emphatic idea of what he’s rejecting. If I were his dealer, I would be wondering how best to harness his mania and insecurities into coherent body of work without crushing it. He’s a great find.
Hurry! Scott Rosenberg: Snail Trail will be on view at Zoya Tommy Gallery in Houston through August 9, 2014