Ry Rocklen

Treasure hunter

Born in Los Angeles, 1978, Ry Rocklen’s sculptures take after the Duchampian aesthetic rebellion, where any object could be deemed as art. Often relying on the viewers’ emotional and philosophical associations, Rocklen’s readymade sculptures, comprised of dumpster detritus and thrift store treasures, are charged with a poetic delicacy reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines”. He is an “object healer” who resurrects junk from the dead, reconfiguring its purpose, and elevates its status to that of high-art.

Rocklen received his BFA from the University of California in 2001 and MFA from the University of Southern California in 2006. Since then the artist has been a hot-ticket on the international art scene, participating in numerous prestigious exhibitions including the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and more famously he is recognised for the “Night Court” installation at Miami’s Art Basel in 2013. Rocklen’s sculptures are not afraid to poke fun at themselves and challenge its viewers – they’re witty, lyrical, humorous and loaded with poetic punchlines.

A little backstory before we start. We met about a decade ago (in Miami) when I worked with Kim and managed her gallery in London.  A few years after the gallery, I moved to Pocko to work with my old friend, Nicola, who you also know. Both Kim and Nicola are born on the same day. My mind is still blown. Do you believe in coincidence?

What are you working on at the moment?

I cant help myself, I am still rummaging through the garbage. In the studio is a city trashcan that has caught a school of dollar bills in its net of metal. There is an old school locker I want to perforate. There are a series of ceramic sculptures that combine photography and slab construction to create hybrid forms that exist in both two and three dimensions.  

Above: Rollin’ On 23’s, 2007, glasses, pressure treated lumber, concrete, water, stones, 144″ x 23″ x 23″

A lot of your work revises the readymade, igniting the poetic buried in ubiquitous objects. There is a true sense of pathos to your work – discarded objects exhaust emotional or intrinsic value, and are re-appropriated, sometimes mummified, to embody a new understanding and meaning. It seems as if you are saving these objects from their fateful demise, and elevating them the totemic status of high-art. But the works also still retain a humble aura. What are your thoughts on this balance of interpretation and value, between trash and treasure?

The sculptures based on everyday objects rely upon an instinctual and bodily recognition of the object and its associated materiality.  In 2004 I made a styrofoam chair for the sculpture “10,000 Year Wait” that I had sitting in the studio. On occasion I would catch myself almost sitting in it. My body had a pavlovian response to the form of the chair that was  immediately followed by the frightful knowledge it would break into pieces if I were to actually sat down.  When I had the idea of carving a chair out of foam so it would float in four wine glasses I realized I had to find exactly the right chair. This is true in all my work, the sense that not just any chair will do. It is this feeling of the object being just right or “special” that gives the sculpture a sense of pathos. The sculptures made using these found objects are in the most literal sense of the word devotional. Often the process of turning a found object into sculpture is phenomenally laborious. Like tiling an old mattress, this act both articulates its surface and denotes the labor put into it.

Above: Unbrella, patio umbrella, two part epoxy putty, paverpol, acrylic paint, chair, wood, mirrors, metal, 80″ x 80″ x 60″

Above left: 2nd Second Sight (working title), found photos, two-part epoxy putty, sand, 30″ x 20″ x 24″

Above right: Super Health Medallion, bamboo, acrylic gouache, metal, rope, 18″ x 18″ x 1.5″

Do you ever think of the people who once owned the objects you find, or the histories behind them? Does your that ever influence the way the object is (re) treated?

I view the objects past life as being imbedded in it as information. If the object were a digital photograph its past life would make it higher resolution.The objects past life is a form of enrichment. Then on top of that I put more energy into it and ideally reach a critical mass where the sculpture can hold its space as art.

What’s your process? Do you get your ideas after you find your material, or do you come up with your concepts and look for particular objects to execute them?

Sometimes I will find something that I know I cannot pass up but have yet to decide what to do with it exactly. That happened when I found the trophies used in “Second to None”. I had just walked into the junk shop I was frequenting at the time and could no longer ignore the confluence of trophies on the bookshelves along the back wall of the store. I knew I wanted to use them as material for a sculpture as they embodied a sense of accumulated achievement and effort, concepts I was already exploring in other artworks.   When I bought them I knew I wanted to bring them together as a whole while preserving the pathos of their individuality.

Other times I will know I want to use an object for an artwork and then it is a matter of finding the “perfect” one. This was the case the sculpture “On the 4th Day”. I knew I wanted to fiberglass and tile a striped mattress that I would often see folded over on the side of the road. I decided I would start looking for this mattress and after a few days of looking, more specifically “On the 4th day” I found the mattress that became the subject for the sculpture.

Above left: On the Fourth Day, mattress, aqua resin, tiles, grout, 43″ x 36″ x 11″ 

Above right: Rise, 2009, found mattress, fibreglass, Aqua-Resin, glue, glass tiles, grout, 44″ x 46.5″ x 38″

Above: RockBalance2007, Photo, wood, metal, plaster, foam, foam coat, 41″ x 12″ x 12″

Is there an object in your collection that you’ve been eager to use, but still haven’t found a place for it yet?

I have an old high school locker I bought about three years ago that I am still mulling over.  I know in general what I am gonna do with it but there are a few decisions that haven’t yet been worked out. Outside the studio I always come across old couches but have never known how I would turn them into sculpture. I think I may have finally figured it out!

Much of your work (in theory) reminds me of Joseph Beuys, and his use of “transformation” to demonstrate the restorative and healing power of art. Can you expand a little on your interest in health and healing?

I think the healing potential of my sculpture lies in its ability to bring value to impoverished things, as I pick up and cherish whats been left behind. To give importance to the disregarded.  

Above left: Change Hands, 2007, basketball, bowl, nut and bolt, concrete, rocks, pigment

Above right: Viewfinder, 2008, wicker chair, aqua resin, fibreglass, two part epoxy putty, mirror tile, 26″ x 48″ x 24″

You’re shipwrecked on a deserted island and only have a few objects that you’ve managed gather in your pockets (assuming you’re wearing trousers). What are they?

I would have an 81 function swiss army knife, a small flute, and some marijuana seeds.

A book washes up on shore. What book would you want it to be?

“Dolphin Connection: Interdimensional Ways of Living” by Joan Ocean. This book is about communicating with Dolphins and Whales on a very deep level. That way after I read the book I will have someone to talk to.  

Above: Like a Rock2014, Found recliner, fibreglass, aqua resin, faux marble finish, 24″ x 22″ x 42″

I read somewhere that your favourite comedian is Mitch Hedberg, and you pointed out that his jokes were, in a sense, “sculptural”. I think that’s a fitting interpretation of the way Mitch saw the world… he was a master wordsmith, who’s subversive wit would tangle definition and situation with double entendre and non-sequiturs. His punchlines were also incredibly on point.

I see your work in very much the same light. You point out the absurdity of objects – the pathetic discards – and highlight our attachment to them. Their intended purpose and appointed meaning is often stripped bare and often substituted with humour and irony. Do you think the artworld needs more humour? Can good art just be a humorous punchline and nothing more?

More specifically Mitch might be the Magritte of comedy. I love his work.  The way he distorts the fabric of language and the materiality of the spoken word. Humor, art, and music are my favorite coping mechanisms. Like the re-modelling of a house to make room for a new child. A release valve to blow off steam.  Ideally great art affects the world that produced it, like adding another gear to the cultural transmission.  Ingenuity and humor go hand in hand as they excel in using what already exists in new and exciting ways.  Simple combinations of objects, materials, and words that produce enduring and complex effects.  Like a good joke I suppose.

How do you go about writing & recording your music. Do you work alone? Do you play your music live or tour?

I have been working with my dear friend Nick Lowe on new material for our rap band “The Bushes”. Our process has been pretty strait forward since we started the band back in 2001. One of us will produce a beat and come up with a vague notion of what the song will be about. Then we both come up with a verse and collaborate on the chorus. 

We have been playing live shows on and off since we started.  Nick and I are particularly looking forward to playing “All the Instruments Agree” at the Hammer Museum at the end of September, an art/music festival for the ages curated by Aram Moshayedi.

You made a music video for the opening of the Pocko Gallery in Milan, 2009. It was a cover version of Rod Stewart’s “Do ya think I’m sexy”. I love it. What’s up with the desserts?

Thank you! I owe it all to Silvia Gaspardo Mora. She thought I should cover the Rod Stewart classic and then of course asked me to produce a video to go along with it. The desserts came from the songs focus on the body and its associated pleasures. The sweets became a lens through which I could illustrate the song, while bringing some pathos to the songs bravado. I imagine someone wistfully listening to that song and the story Rod tells while eating a tub of ice cream.


Your “Trophy Modern” series takes sports trophies and reassembles its parts to make chic, throne-like, modernist furniture. The series was born out of finding discarded trophies in a thrift store, and using them to make “Second To None”, 2011. Trophies in themselves say a lot about the need to validate ourselves and our successes. But so does furniture. Is your series loaded with a false sense of achievement, where everyone can be a winner? Or do you see the works as more of a celebration? Do you have plans to make the series more accessible to the wider public? 

The spirit of Trophy Modern can be summed up by one of my taglines, “Trophy Modern, where everyone is a winner.” Then there is the slightly more cynical piece of copy, “Trophy Modern, the cocaine of furniture.” Trophy Modern is an attempt to abstract and disrupt the connection between the award and a specific team or player, allowing the notion of winning to exist explicitly in Trophy Modern’s materiality. This materiality is celebratory in nature, as it exudes color, sparkle, and shine. The trophy is always trying to live up to all the hard work and dedication its owner has gone through to earn it but can only get so far with its plastic parts covered in foil and rainbows. Trophy Modern embodies the ambition of those trophy parts while allowing them to become something more than a symbol, something real, like a table, a couch, or chair. This September Trophy Modern will be opening at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. In conjunction with the opening of the space I plan on producing digital media that will bring a deeper understanding of Trophy Modern to anyone with an internet connection.

Above left : Night Court, Art Basel Miami Beach, 2013

Above left : Second to None, 2011,  Trophies, trophy parts, wood, 
94.5″ x 146″ x 39″

Below left: Emerald Club, 2013, Trophy parts, laminated plywood, edge banding, hardware, cushion and upholstery, 36″ x 31″ x 36″

Below right: American Diner, 2013, Trophy parts, laminated plywood, edge banding, hardware, 32″ x 19″ x 20″

What has been your crowning achievement to date?

It is very hard to say but I have a strong sense of fulfilment from the purchase of “Second to None” by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

There’s a monster underneath your bed. What does it look like?

It is white and fluffy with sharp teeth and a pink nose…. oh wait, that is our dog Matthew! 

Lastly, what do you dream of?

Last night I dreamt of large ocean waves crashing along the shore.  They were filled with ocean and human life. I dream about the sea shore often. When I was a kid we lived in a house in Venice. I would dream of riding a flying blue whale around my neighborhood. His name was Whaley and he became my imaginary friend. He lived under the house when we weren’t adventuring. I have since often dreamed of these large and majestic creatures. What does it mean?

Berlin, Bears and Refugees