Born 1984, Pittsburgh, PA / BFA, Maryland Institute College of Art; MFA Virginia Commonwealth University / Lives in Detroit
Performance, food, puppetry, sculpture (both soft and hard), video, quilting, agitprop parading, even rima oris theatrics. Enter Leslie Rogers’ work with a premise of play—as verb and noun. A vibrant, animated constellation of unfettered elements run through this diversity of forms: rhythmic, dynamic, and overflowing. Rogers speaks of her work in an intuitive, ambling fashion, imparting an exquisite corpse-like testimony, one anecdote leading into the next and, just when these elements appear leaning off topic, they fall squarely into the work, illuminated.
Rogers created a Venn diagram as a statement of practice. An asterisk sits central, in the sweet-spot between a primary ring of intercepting categories: “Art,” “Life,” and “Mischief,” seconded by “Performance,” “Subversion,” and “Crime.” From the periphery, an arrow points to the asterisk, a symbol rife with meaning and uses, planting the term “Lifestallation” as its key. The diagram reads as a choreographic score, leveling conventional divisions between art and life, high and low, politics and aesthetics, subject and object. Through tactics of humor, absurdity, discomfort, and what she calls “fast and dirty ways of doing anything,” her work prods at a broad spectrum of interests including (post)colonial dis-ease, gendered artifice/authenticity, the politics of remorse, and hauntology. The handmade is central, expressing Rogers’ investment in what performance scholar Jeanne Vaccaro notes is traditionally deemed the “low art, skilled labor, or ‘women’s work’” of craft.
Rogers’ roots are in quilting. Her first quilt, completed at age eleven, was emblazed with heart-shaped, kaleidoscopic geometries. Her technical expertise—if she can draw it, she can sew it—is evident in a recent return to this practice, taking form in extensive wearable performance objects that oscillate across sculptural, prosthetic, and scenic contours. Rogers’ establishes a forensic approach to quilt iconography and symbol, emphasizing that context is everything and that it’s the artist’s responsibility to weave this into form.
Similar to Rogers’ “Lifestallation” diagram, the quilt provides an intertextual focal point for narratives to emerge, but it also act as, stands in for, and literally clothes bodies. Costume, set, or sculpture, Rogers’ quilts create a theatrical scene. The all-encompassing bell-like cloak of Ghost (2012), created in Richmond, Virginia, employs “Farmer’s Fancy,” a quilting pattern specific to the region. Suspended from the ceiling, the garment is slowly lowered over the body of an opera singer, who, concealed, performs haunting arias inspired by Georgian a cappella. Victory Dance (2016), a video piece, traces the contested history of Mercy Brown, a suspected vampire of Exeter, RI, who happened to be a talented quilter. The piece, narrating her tragic death, returns her as a joyous quilted figure stitched with rising fire, dancing ecstatically at the altar of a decomposing church.
For Rehearsal (2017), a quilt in the shape of a death shroud mummy bag, weaves together her ill father’s presence as “a bedsheet ghost” and the “Log Cabin” pattern, whose varied stories of origin includes Egyptian cat mummy wrapping techniques, British agricultural systems, and the storied legacies of colonialism. The piece, sewn to the exact scale of Rogers’ own corporeal form, underscores art as a means to negotiate personal loss. While Rogers has yet to don or rehearse the piece, it already serves as body, actor, or surrogate, and she surmises the work has stronger presence absented of contents, dynamic, delicate, and spacious in its corpse-like emptiness—a “humble object.” Nonetheless, Rogers states, “Performance is where it’s going. I don’t start with performance but it doesn’t feel done until it becomes a performance, the right performance.” Performance gestures toward futurity.
As an undergrad in Baltimore, Rogers encountered the political, activist theatre Bread and Puppet, and later, in Philadelphia collaborated extensively with PuppeTyranny after first performing as Caesar the Trapeezer for their “Secret Shakespeare’s Dessert Theatre” (2010). In this production, she inaugurated her now frequently donned naked man suit, in which she performs as her “crowd-pleasing” alter-ego, Wesley Wodgers, a “bumbling idiot who is humorously, though decidedly, wrong.” DIY puppetry and performance appealed to Rogers, distinct from art school’s culture of “masterpiece-itis,” a mode of insurrection and subversion.
The mouth theatre series is a fascinating look at puppetry’s intersection of sculpture and performance. It involves the theatre box becoming orifice, subsumed by the mouth, with lips enunciating a proscenium arch around a slippery, (yet sharply?) gesticulating stage-tongue below. As video, one can witness the drama of Surfing’s Hard, Shark Attack, Wreck, Picnic, or Miracle (all 2009). Each piece dramatizes the mouth as a primary purveyor of theatricality, though disavows suspensions of disbelief and instead collapses upon conditions of embodiment and utterance. Does the body know that which it speaks? In his manifesto of theatrical subversion, Allen Weiss proposes: “The very presence of the puppeteer creates the marionette.” Body and object collide, and collude.
Biba Bell, May 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018