Trying to Keep Things Perfect Plays with Mythical Boyhood

Jimmy Hagan, Arts Editor

Mothers and fathers use the phrase “boys will be boys” to excuse their male children’s troublemaking. In the 1940s and ’50s, the phrase could be heard on television and in books like The Little RascalsLeave it to Beaverand The Lone Ranger. This fictional adolescence was a suburban American cultural product designed to nostalgically reimagine an extinct frontier lifestyle. These stories prepared young boys for a bland adulthood where nosy neighbors and adventurous mortgage decisions would replace fighting Indians and building cabins.

Cooper Rogers’ senior studio show, Trying to Keep Things Perfect, updated and personalized these postwar Cub Scout tropes to create a mythologized boyhood. While the honest play of Rogers’ show clearly meant no harm, it celebrated a legacy of “red-skinned” natives, gun-shooting and sex that remains a pervasive influence on American masculinity.

Yet, the show was also just plain fun. In its strongest moments, the solo exhibition elevated art to the holy level of horseplay. It was art as “screwing around.” Trying to Keep Things Perfect transformed Fisher Gallery into a tree house.

Books about cowboys, squirrel pelts, plastic toys, gold condoms, and leather footballs spilled across the gallery floor next to a fortress made of diagonally stacked ceiling high sticks. Photographs with spray paint stood adjacent to delicately wrapped coils and intricate cut-outs. Illuminated paper wolf heads hung like taxidermy busts, a visualization of a dream in which Rogers wore medieval armor and battled wolf monsters. The whole circus was greater than the sum of its three-ringed parts.

Despite the frenetic atmosphere, other pieces impressed with subtlety. “How to Fill a Room,” triptych of framed plans for his show, presented Rogers’ project as a childhood game. Across the room, a set of two jean jackets hung one above the other in “I’ll Never Be as Cool as My Dad.” Simple and actually a little moving, the juxtaposition addressed the need to create personal relics.

Projected on the wall next to a canvas he masturbated on, Rogers’ artist statement became an installation itself. Basically, the statement explained that Trying to Keep Things Perfect was about dickin’ around. Rogers’ knack for writing extended to his titles as well. Much of his work relied on verbal wit to inform or challenge the meaning of the object on display. In one example, Rogers covered three small mammal skulls in gold leaf calling it, “My Ideas Cost Too Much.” Another work, “Vestigial Whatever,” contained a skinned squirrel stuffed with coiled paper — parading an ironic nonchalance that established an authorial distance through language. A crowd-pleasing piece, “I Want to See Some Sunshine,” cited “magic” as a medium.

Yet, playtime is never divorced from the political context it occurs within. Children learn how to become adults by playing, and boyhood is as much about learning how to be a man as it is about having fun. In practice, Rogers’ exhibit exalted the stereotypical male behavior of shooting, building and ejaculating.

First, a BB gun shooting range shouted, “I don’t wanna grow up!” with a Peter Pan kind of magic but ignored the violence inherent to firearms. Second, a fortress of sticks — a monument to the masculine desire to build and conquer — may or may not have looked like an American Indian teepee.

Third, Trying to Keep Things Perfect seemed obsessed with ejaculation. White spray paint defaced a photograph of a naked woman and rolled suggestively down her breast. A performer stood motionless all evening before screaming and ejecting a wad of multicolored feathers all over the gallery floor.

In the most in your face example, three paintings on the wall by the entrance spelled out a sex rebus. “Making love > …” stood next to “… > Fucking > …” and was followed by “… > Being Alone.” The canvases displayed white footprints, smudges, handprints and semen — the indexical remnants of real — yes, real — sex acts.

Because it convincingly asked the viewer to take things lightly, Trying to Keep Things Perfect can be judged for reaffirming the status quo. Particularly, by juvenilizing sex, it presented an uncomfortably male-centric view of a commonly two-sided affair. Yet in the balancing act between good ole-fashioned fun and complicated gender dynamics, Rogers’ work was hard to get out of our head.

Moreover, Rogers’ notion of “play” cannot be dismissed. In The Pleasures of the Text, Roland Barthes identifies “play” — or the free interchange of sounds, signs and symbols — as the primary source of linguistic meaning. One particularly exciting way to create value for Barthes is through the “seam,” a fissure between desired meaning and the lack of any absolute truth.

Trying to Keep Things Perfect took us to the doorstep of adulthood and presented us with a fragmentation. There, Rogers’ personal longing and disappointment stood bare. If in the end his boyhood constructions were fabrications, the desire to hold onto them was real.