Wahoo Nation

A military mythic beast swoops down at 21 Grand.

Artist John Colle Rogers lives in a veritable mausoleum. The walls of his East Oakland apartment burst with roughly two decades’ worth of detritus: baseball caps, Bicycle playing cards, Heinz baked beans, an eviscerated typewriter, a cutout of George Bush with gaudy bling necklaces draped around his neck, a poster of Sitting Bull, a Polaroid of some random kid sitting on Santa’s lap, a can of Spam, a grandfather clock with a piece of bone sticking out of it, a rolled-up American flag, a dollar bill with the eye cut out, figurines made out of wood scraps and found doodads — including a squashed hairbrush. Psychologists might call Rogers a chronic hoarder. He says he is contemplating mortality and mapping our relationship with time. “I’m dealing with abrasions,” the artist said. “I’m looking at the heavy-handedness of our relationship with the world.”

Then there’s the military paraphernalia. Descended from a long line of veterans — his dad served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam; his older brother joined the army after graduating from college; and his oldest nephew was deployed in Iraq — Rogers is fixated on military themes in his art. An ironworker by trade — he ekes out a living repairing fence ornaments and railings — Rogers spends the bulk of his free time at Phoenix Ironworks, the century-old foundry located just across the railroad tracks from his apartment. He makes sculptures from parts of shotguns, shoots .44 magnum bullet holes into half-inch-thick aluminum plates, and glues Hot Wheels cars to boxes of gun cartridges so that the paint detail on the cars matches the logo on the boxes. Friends are constantly giving him war-related collectibles that clutter up his bedroom and his foundry workspace: GI Joes, toy sky fighters, Matchbox police armored vehicles, and pictures of tanks.

Rogers has been fascinated by warfare ever since his childhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where his father served as dean of the College of Fine Arts. “It was pretty sleepy,” he said of the town. “You had to create your own fun if you didn’t play a sport. We pretty much played outside, played army, played D&D.” As a kid, Rogers would build elaborate fortresses in his sandbox and destroy them. He played with firecrackers. He made samurai swords by wrapping hockey tape around steel pipes. He mixed laundry detergent and gasoline to make napalm — “a sort of paste that you could put on a spoon and flick.” Once he took a tennis ball, soaked it in gasoline, lit it on fire, and hit it around the yard with croquet mallets, inscribing a brown zigzag pattern on the lawn. Luckily, his parents never noticed.

The seduction of warfare remains prevalent in his work. After earning an MFA in sculpture from California College of Arts and Crafts in 1997, he launched a long-term sci-fi project called Grey Invaders, which is partly a magical-realist depiction of war, and partly Rogers’ critique of our “accelerated culture.” Rogers came up with the idea for a depraved extra-terrestrial army called the Grey Invaders, who land in Washington, DC and wreak havoc. After bombing a Blockbuster and a Starbucks, they begin a giant loop around the United States, following a battle map that resembles the US highway map.

Rogers spent the winter of 1997 in his studio with the heater cranked up, building diorama representations of the Grey Invaders story. In Tennessee, Native American and colonial soldiers ambush the invaders at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Plowing through the Midwest, they engage in hand-to-hand combat with skateboarding zombies, Zulu soldiers, and colonial settlers. In Oakland, they stop at the Coliseum to watch a football game and battle a rogue group of Star Wars troopers emerging from the Bay. In North Dakota, they are caught in a blizzard and end up freezing to death. Unperturbed, the Grey Invaders launch a second insurgency in a parallel universe with cosmetic connections to the US, mostly in terms of Midwestern iconography (including grain elevators and a shell station). This time, their target is the Green Defenders, a rival army whose temple resembles Osaka Castle in Japan.

Rogers’ representations are intricate and brilliant, comprising mini billboards made from graffiti decals, a 7-Eleven that’s actually a scaled-down replica of the convenience store in Fairfax, and a crummy motel assembled from a model railroad kit. He debuted the exhibit at 21 Grand in 2001, displayed a refined version the following year at Southern Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles, and created a second installment for Blankspace Gallery in July of this year. This month he returns to 21 Grand with a new troop of invaders, this time taking the form of gigantic steel pterodactyls designed to look like bombs with nineteen-foot wings. The birds’ heads look like scythes, while their circular bodies take the form of a banjo. Rogers calls these new creatures the Wahoos, a name derived from his own misinterpretation of a lyric from C.W. McCall’s song, “There Won’t Be No Country Music.” The song has a lyric that goes, And you see the wild goose flying through the great polluted sky, which Rogers always heard as And you see the wahoos flying through the great polluted sky. For roughly thirty years, he thought a Wahoo was a strange primitive bird.

The idea that animates Wahoos, Rogers said, is that if the military-industrial complex could spawn a mythic beast, here is what it would look like. The birds’ joints are hollow steel balls, while the wings are tubing and solid rod. Rogers formed the wings by heating sheet metal to make it warp, and accentuating the curvature with an English wheel — “the same tool as someone shaping a gas tank would use on one of those chopper shows.” The Wahoos are swooping toward a rebar spiderweb structure that resembles the MacArthur Maze when photographed from a birds-eye view. Rogers lined the walls of 21 Grand with black selenium-dioxide paintings meant to represent the “gray polluted skies.”

Designed with the slickness of aircraft vehicles or gigantic weapons, the Wahoos have enticing, perfectly sculpted bodies that belie their predatory nature. “What really attracted me was just the head — the swoop of the head,” Rogers said. “And it was really hard to let go of that. I didn’t want to deny them that pleasure.” Rogers still isn’t sure of the birds’ intentions. He said they just flew in his shop one day. “I got in one morning and I opened up the door. Just as it was opening up, all three of them just swooped in. They nestled up in the rafters so I left a big pile of bolts on the table to coax them down.” At 21 Grand, he has rigged them to hone straight on the center of the Maze — if you stand in front of it and look straight ahead, you’ll meet the knife-like eye of the bird — but he doesn’t know if they’re attacking or coming in to roost. The Wahoos’ connection to the Grey Invaders also remains nebulous, though Rogers says they both represent an “extreme focus of the will.”

The Grey Invaders — it’s a look at convenience culture and the way it controls people,” he said. “The Wahoos are evidence of me trying to control the metal.” Yet, he added, whether you’re dealing with a human hand or the first armored division, “they’re all part of the same investigation, for sure.”

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