Minneapolitan artist Molly Roth has girlish features, a tousle of blonde curls, and a pensive vulnerability that’s all the more disarming given the edgy smarts of her artwork. “I love language,” she explains, “but I’m not a writer, really. I guess I do philosophy with my hands.” Roth creates installations now but ,years ago when she began, she started with printmaking and textiles. “After a while, that just wasn’t satisfying to me anymore. I’ve always really liked playing with text, but I was frustrated with only two dimensions on the page. I just wanted to pull the line … pull it right out of the page and mess with it.” She playfully twists words and letters both literally and figuratively, teasing the viewer with wordplay and wit. The curious arrangements of form, text, and meaning in her pieces are both deceptively simple and intellectually elusive—much like a Buddhist koan. One of her most arresting installations, inscrutably entitled Two Dobermans Fucking Under a Bedroom Window, appears to be merely the word “Sweetness”, rendered in elegant cursive script upon an expanse of white wall. Upon close examination you can see that text is painstakingly constructed out of tiny, hand-tied black grosgrain ribbons. She explains that the personal significance of this work is rooted in a disconcerting early memory. When she was eight years old, her family lived in Portland, Oregon adjacent to a grim little pet shop. “They had a barrel out back literally filled with puppies, all on top of each other. It was a horrible place,” she begins. “My bedroom window on the second floor overlooked their backyard, and one night I remember they were breeding a Doberman with another dog. These incredible, scary sounds from the dogs filled my room. One of the Dobermans was named Sweetness, and I just remember very clearly hearing the pet shop owner screaming out at the dog while it was mating, ‘Sweetness! C’mon Sweetness!’ I found myself thinking of that, and for some reason I really needed to create this piece. I’m not sure why.” All of Roth’s work is deeply personal. So much so that she's quite cautious about selling some of her pieces. “I guess I give them personalities, and I feel a need to keep them around me. And a number of the pieces are part of something ongoing, like the Untapped Potential series or the bows in How I Learned to Stop Worrying … sometimes a thought nags at me and I just have to make one. It’s a kind of compulsion. But the thing is, they all need to stay together. They’re part of each other… part of me. If I sold them to someone, they would have to take them all and I’d need to keep giving them the new pieces. These really feel intimately connected to me; I can’t imagine who I could give them to at this point, since it's an ongoing thing.” To hear Roth describe her pieces, they’re almost people, and sort of bossy ones at that. “I feel like they’re kind of clamoring for attention sometimes. Like the velvet bows that make up How I Learned to Stop Worrying. When I arranged them for the Soo Vac show, they gave me the distinct impression that they needed to be arranged as if they were escaping. They needed to break free from the pile, explore the room. They wouldn’t have let me alone if I’d put them any other way.” Her little Untapped Potential critters are even needier. “I feel like these, especially, need me. I have them on shelves, but they have to be kept just so, and sometimes I need to move them around, arrange them differently. I’m starting to think I need to make nicer little boxes for them…” She’s joking, but only by half. “They’re the things that aren’t comfortable to express, the stuff you don’t really want anyone to see—like a booger hanging out of your nose. And when I make one, it really does feel to me like something that came off of me—like I’ve released something cathartic. If I actually make something out of those feelings, I guess I can let them go and I feel better afterward. But once I’ve made them, they feel really vulnerable to me, naked. So, I need to dress them up, cover them.” Roth starts laughing, “It would be really great to get a fashion designer involved. I would love to dress them up in something like a Karl Lagerfeld suit. That’s why if I’m putting crystals on the Potentials, they’ve got to be Swarovski crystals. I looked at some of the less expensive ones, but nope… it had to be Swarovski.” She grins impishly, “They like being dressed up, and for me, they’re almost like dolls.” When you’re inside a space that’s populated with Roth’s creatures, you lose your bearings. Her pieces bear some resemblance to familiar objects—Christmas bows, greeting card sentiments—but everything’s a little bent. Slightly askew. Those festive crimson ribbons seem to creep toward you of their own accord. Walk a little ways down a narrow corridor, and you’re confronted by a little posse of unsettlingly fleshy knobs kitted out in Swarovski crystal and tulle. Wander to a corner, get in there tightly, and Roth’s piece directs you to escape in “Run, Run.” The white expanse in front of you bears a sentiment written in knit wool: “So Happy You’re Here.” But the well wishing is complicated a little, as it’s pulled from the wall and dragged to the floor with weights. Roth’s is a dreamtime landscape, rich in metaphor and subconscious longing. Her world is both beautiful and grotesque, and just pure freaky—evocative of nothing so much as raw, weird feelings remembered from early childhood. And the artwork itself feels like performance as much as visual art—a stage play by objects, put on for their own amusement. In brief: Molly Roth spent her early childhood on the south side of Chicago, riding her bicycle in circles around the funeral home parking lot behind her house. After living in Portland, Oregon for 15 years and working on numerous interdisciplinary projects, she moved to Minneapolis to pursue her MFA at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Her work has been shown in various venues including as The Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture, Pacific Switchboard, and Soo Visual Art Center. She is currently participating in the Art Shanty Projects and preparing for upcoming shows at The Soap Factory, SooVAC and her thesis show at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
access+ENGAGE Issue 14.1: All the World's a Stage
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