'In Search of Zapotec, Museo Rufino Tamayo" is the most startling departure in Steve Rogers' current show of terra-cotta reliefs. It's a typically horizontal panel, modeled with characteristic vigor and drama; the surprise is subject matter. Instead of giving us the boxing matches and frenetic crowds at the Olympic Auditorium (a faded fixture of downtown Los Angeles), Rogers presents himself as a picture-snapping tourist in a new museum of pre-Columbian sculpture.
Since he emerged about three years ago, Rogers has distinguished himself as a revivalist of 1930s Regionalism and a master of historical overlays. Here, he introduces new complexities and a dash of humor: clay portraying clay and stone, an artist looking at an artist looking at ancient art through modern technology. More important than that, the piece has a peculiar visual immediacy that catches you off guard and draws you to it.
In the remainder of the show, Rogers reexamines his trademark territory--a localized version of the terrain permanently staked out by George Bellows. Results are always interesting but uneven in impact. Some outdoor views are so restrained that they convey only a lonely sense of nostalgia. More successful are panels that organize crushing crowds in tight bands, threatening to break into chaos when a figure starts to tumble out of the picture.
Containment bursts in fight scenes in which boxers slug it out under cones of yellow light and the audience explodes into an ecstatic mass of punching fists and writhing bodies. Excitement is at its peak when Rogers borrows the centerpiece of Bellows' "Stag at Sharkey's" for his own "Stag Night."
More of Rogers' reliefs (as well as Joseph Mannino's massive, spiraling columns and Luis Bermudez's geology-inspired abstractions) are in a show of architectural ceramics at USC Atelier, at the Santa Monica Place mall, through Sunday. (Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 669 N. La Cienega Blvd., to Feb. 16.)