For about a decade I have had the good fortune of visiting the studio of painter Arturo Rodríguez. Each visit is an adventure and a learning experience. An adventure, because something exciting and refreshing will be encountered; a learning experience because the living history of painting is engaged, questioned and continued in this space. The studio consists of two rooms; a kind of square one where the artist paints and a narrow, horizontal rectangle with shelves filled with books (most of them on visual art) where art work is also stored. The luscious aroma of oil paint fills both rooms. The walls in the room where he paints have reproductions of admired paintings here and there, fragments of poems, quotes by artists and writers scribbled across the surface. Brushes, palettes, tubes of paint, an easel. It is a place of daily work. Because what matters is the work, the constant, loving battle on the canvas. Over the years, Arturo has defined to me his process as “A metaphor. You enter a house but you do not know where the door to exit is located. You must find it in the process of painting itself. It is an ongoing apprenticeship. Like alchemy. You are searching. Making the invisible, visible.”
Arturo Rodríguez first began exhibiting in the late 1970s. It was the heyday of conceptual and installation art, yet from the start he chose the medium of painting and the figurative tradition. Since then he has produced one of the richest and profound bodies of work, where stylistic shifts reflect his perennial exploration of the nature of painting and constructing the figure. Few painters today have the pictorial and literary culture of Rodríguez, and this is embedded in the visual conversations present in his oils and watercolors. An artist that would have been easily identified by the late art critic Marta Traba as an “obsessive,” he is committed to and in love with paint and painting, and the human condition as his subject.
Like most of his work, this most recent series began in his small sketchbooks, where doodles, sketches and notations are the seeds for what is to be developed. This body of pictures, which he has titled “Arcimboldo’s Ghosts,” makes reference to the phantasms that inhabit his imagination. He has brought together and transformed disparate sources that have been an integral part of his visual registry: the portraits of the Italian mannerist Arcimboldo, known for his estrambotic heads composed of botanical materials; the prints of Sharaku; certain details and fragments from the photos of Diane Arbus and Cartier Bresson; Cézanne’s male bather; Courbet’s “The Meeting;” Gericault’s portraits of the insane; Mondrian’s grid with yellow, red and blue; and “Mr. Peanut” from popular culture. From this disparity he has created some thirty-odd oils plus watercolors, which are unified by his painterly virtuosity and open-ended imagination.
These paintings are like a jazz riff (another obsession of this artist), a gumbo, a game, where a minimal yet structured drawing is the foundation for a great freedom of execution. An image is painted and explored with the breath of improvisation. The background space is articulated with the foreground figures in a way that reflects cinematography, evoking movement. The large passages of greens and tans, grays and silvers are orchestrated with the intense appearances of a red, a yellow or a blue, thereby pushing and pulling the pictorial surface. An underpainting of white facilitates the transparency of the colors that will be layered on the surface, some like glazes, and others more opaque. Colors are splattered, dripped, scraped, brushed with delicacy or reckless abandon; the entire surface of the painting is an active viewing experience.
The figures single or in pairs, come forth. Some hold walking staffs, reminiscent of medieval pilgrims or St. Christopher; or carry bags or suitcases. They are in transient states, in perpetual movement. The exiles and immigrants of modernity. Arcimboldo’s European vegetables and fruits are “tropicalized” by Rodríguez; these are painterly yet sober, avoiding clichés, avocados, papayas, mameys, etc., appear as body parts. At first glance they all seem whimsical, playful, but underneath the depth of the human condition can be sensed; tragedy and comedy, nothingness and meaning encountered and balanced in our existence. A head or a body can be a fusion of the various sources mentioned earlier, while at the same time original and personal. The unfamiliar found in the most familiar sight. Homage and parody are knitted together in these poetic evocations, which of course are very much a part of the tradition of painting in Europe and the Americas.
Each painting is about the subject, but it is also about seeing the subject. Rodríguez allows us to see the “scaffolding” of the picture, which reveal both doubt and certainty, stating the visual paradox of “Is this what I see? / This is what I see.” Rodríguez, like Cézanne (an important source of inspiration for these pictures), begins with the uncertainty of seen reality, and in the process of painting, affirms what is seen and the very nature of the medium used.
Among a corpus of strong pictures, one stands out to me particularly for its compositional complexity and poetic richness. It depicts three figures and a dog; a tribute to Courbet’s “The Meeting.” On the left, the largest figure is a fusion of a child holding a toy hand grenade (Arbus), a samurai (Sharaku) and a servant with a walking stick (Courbet). The head is an enormous zucchini. The smaller central figure blends Courbet’s collector Bruyas and Cézanne’s bather into a man walking towards the viewer. In the middle background, a dog with a green pepper for a head, stands. On the right, another large figure stands. It is the painter as pilgrim (Courbet), armed with staff, hat in hand, supplies strapped to his back. His head is a concoction of a pineapple, a squash and plantains. The structures of Mondrian appear in what seem both the sky and a room. Water pours out of a square duct, from the background to the foreground. Shadows on the ground evoke a Cartier Bresson photo, a folk art mask. In the far off distance on the right, there is an automobile, a bay of green blue water, and what is possibly the Miami skyline. The greens, red and yellows of the figures play off the large sections of ochres, tans and grays, creating volume of form and depth of space. In the hands of a lesser painter, this mish mash of iconographic sources could be an unholy mess. Rodríguez brings this confederacy of personages together, and with a collage-like fusion gives us the gran teatro del mundo – the great theatre of the world, a human comedy charged with pity and humor. And it is all at the service of painting, that most demanding of vocations.
This entire body of work is Rodriguez’ love letter to painting.
Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of Art History and Latin American / Latinx Studies William Paterson University.
Roselle Park, New Jersey.