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Her art deflates sexual posturing

Inspired by quilts, Clare Rojas threads folktales and landscapes with sly humor

WALTHAM -- Call Clare Rojas the anti-Elvis. The painter, installation artist, and musician has put CDs out under the name Peggy Honeywell . Her songs hum along with an old-timey folk sound, until you get to a version of the King's "All Shook Up." Rojas sings it in a small, hesitant voice, missing beats. It comically conveys the antithesis of Presley's urgent eroticism, and it has its own sweet truth.

You can see that same sly, subversive humor covering the walls of the Rose Art Museum in Rojas's solo exhibition, "Hope Springs Eternal." Rojas gently calls into question traditional gender roles and undermines the sexual objectification of women by having men step into that part. There is no icon of male virility for Rojas. Indeed, if most of society fixates on the symbolic power of an erection, Rojas usually turns her attention to the ignored but endearing flaccid penis.

The 30-year-old artist hails from San Francisco, and her work jibes with that town's fascination for the aesthetics of folk art and street art. While San Francisco artist Barry McGee's work springs from the jazzy, muscular declarations of graffiti, Rojas's art rises from the intimate stitching and designs of quilts.

Walk through the front doors of the museum, and you're engulfed in the sound of running water and the vision of a giant quilt. It's made from plywood blocks coated with house paint and arranged from floor to ceiling in an unfolding design through which Rojas threads landscapes and folktale narratives. One hilarious wall features paintings of a bevy of soft-bodied men, most of them nude, many of them preening and posing provocatively, the way a buxom blonde might appear in a beer ad.

Another nude man, this one a sculpture, turns out to be the source of the sound effects. He stands on the landing between the two floors, peeing endlessly into the museum's ground-floor pond. A video monitor perches beside him, with a video of Rojas (or Honeywell) placidly strumming her guitar and singing in the middle of a wild frat party. The message is partly that boys will be boys. Even so, Rojas is not writing men off: The titular eternal spring seems embodied in the bladder of this blithely urinating fellow.

If the men are comic relief, the women in Rojas's installation are warriors and priestesses. The diamond and pinwheel patterns that surround them seem to be part of their magic, as are the large hex signs that rise like the sun here and there. One old woman wears a headscarf. A pattern of lines falls from her mouth like a slide, and diamond-headed figures parade up it to deposit gems into her mouth, as if she's a goddess requiring sacrifice.

The artist's aesthetic, springing from the geometries of quilts, is flat and stylized. She pares flowers down to a clean construction of shapes; there's one stretching magnificently across the wall at the foot of the stairs. Figures are simplified, and spatial depth is only implied by where the characters are in relation to one another, as in a Persian miniature.

Every image reads as a symbol. Garments morph into protective shields. Animals carry magic. In one landscape, in which two women laugh to the heavens as a man runs from them tugging mournfully at his mustache, there are three owl-like creatures. Rojas built their faces from red and white patterns; their feet are triangular blocks. They cluster near the women, clearly representing some power the man does not have.

The sheer scope and variety of the upstairs installation impresses, but downstairs, where curator Raphaela Platow has hung smaller individual works, there's another kind of revelation. Each piece is a jewel, pulling the viewer in with nuanced and darkly surreal narrative. Two of the larger ones, painted banner-like on unstretched, natural linen, picture a raven-haired warrior woman whose dress is covered with swordlike flowers. Another remarkable painting features a patterned oval that contains a blue bird, a brown animal, and a woman. Some frame the scenes with fabric blocks, suggesting that these pictures are part of the history of women's domestic work.

Gender roles are a tired old saw, and it's hard to reframe them with originality. Rojas does, deflating masculine and feminine sexual posturing in one fell swoop. Her men are boys, though, and one wonders what will happen when -- or if -- they become adults. But her work is rich and enticing for many more reasons. She caroms in and out of pattern, she juggles scale, and most importantly, she holds open mystery, and invites the viewer in.

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