An Interview with Arturo Rodriguez

by Lee Ortega
Curator, Bass Museum of Art

Question:
Your previous work depicted multiple figures in imaginary and dream-like landscapes. Why the shift to single figures, and how else would you describe this body of work as being a point of departure from your previous works?

AR:
All the changes in my work come over a long period of time. I enjoy working serially. New themes and ways of painting start insinuating themselves to me, from which idea after idea develop slowly and sometimes tentatively. Painting is a very intuitive process, and always guide myself by what I feel first and then I rationalize later.

The entire process takes on a life of its own, and the new pictorial problems take over, but basically my work consistently revolves around the human figure and its contexts. Artists have many options and says of expressing themselves, and there is always a need for change. I view art as a journey that I take just to see how it ends.

Question:
Despite the large scale of the works, the paintings are tightly cropped and the subjects appear to be “trapped” within their environments. Does this reflect how you perceive traditional roles or contemporary society in general?

AR:
I think contemporary society has many confines, traps, and mirages both visible and invisible. I sense the frustration of the individual in a society that is more and more monolithic, oppressed, and limiting. My work reflects that, perhaps in an unconscious way.

I have to play with my own experiences and observations of the times we live in, and how these translate into a pictorial language, where the space of the composition and the limits of the canvas are involved, among other elements.
The title for your series “The Human Comedy” immediately brings to mind the series of novels and novellas of the same title by the nineteenth-century French writer Honre de Balzac. Do you see your work as illustrating Balzac’s social mosaic of the customs, atmosphere and habits of the bourgeois, or are these purely psychological studies of the individuals?

AR:
This ongoing series of paintings is an essay on the tradition of portraiture where every element is directed to the human form, inside and outside. These works have elements of many subjects and personalities, such as caricature, comics, cartoons, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, the comics of Basil Wolverton,

Jack Cole (Plastic Man), Sharaku, Robert Crumb, and so forth, yet they are painted in a very traditional way without irony or satire. The paintings try to present a wide array of society. Almost all the paintings are based on real individuals such as friends, self-portraits, and strangers observed from life. I do not incorporate elements of fantasy, or the imaginary in these works. The distortion and exaggeration of the figures are based on my reality. There is also the intent in this body of work to revisit or remake versions of famous paintings, which are more or less portraits. Such observations from historic paintings are important to me. I have a strong sense that these historic-inspired paintings are integral to this series, such as Sargent’s Madame X,    Velazquez’s The Jester, Cezanne’s The Bather, and Watteau’s Gilles.
Furthermore, as in Balzac’s “The Human Comedy” there is a sense of doing something that cannot be finished. From concept to finished painting, there is a sense of impossibility that permeates my work.

Question:
How do you go about choosing subjects for your paintings? AR:    My subjects choose me. What often begins as a simple sensation develops
into a full-blown obsession.

Question:
Talk about the role your wife Demi plays in the choices that you make as an artist.

AR:
Our physical proximity in sharing a work space does not affect the painting of the other. We each have our own immense interior universe in a very small studio atmosphere. We are lovers, partners, husband and wife, yet we are self-critical of our own work. We never compare notes on art. We are each guided by a mutual respect for each other’s work, as artists creating in different ways. It is possible to have two storms in a cup of espresso coffee.

Question:
You have a deep appreciation for musical artists ranging from Duke Ellington to Jim Morrison. Can you discuss the role music plays in your artistic process and how it may resonate in the work?

AR:
Rilke wrote music is the breathing of statues, I think this is one of the essential definition of what constitutes music, to hear, perceive and even see music in every day life. When we see a Klee painting we can almost hear it. Music always precedes my work and I cannot conceive it without listening to music first. It opens up an imaginary window where sound follows form. I prefer to listen to a wide variety of music such as Cuban, classic, jazz, Flamenco, etc, It helps me shift the views of the work.

Question:
You were exiled from Cuba at the age of fourteen that resulted in rebuilding a life in Europe and then America. What are your thoughts on cultural dislocation from a personal point of view, and do you think that your career as an artist has progressed because of this destabilizing factor or in spite of it?

AR:
While experience of being exiled has been painful, it has also been a liberating experience-a blessing in disguise. For better or for worse it has allowed me to view life as an “eternal outsider,” to have a certain distance with the cultures and societies that surround me. Yet this experience is only a part of my work, not the reason for it to exist. It has helped me to see the fragile nature of the individual and our existence at the mercy of natural and historical forces.

Question:
While living in Europe you studied the masters such as Cezanne, Goya, El Greco and Titian. Is there one specific master that you continue to revisit for inspiration and why?

AR:
I have always had a wide interest not only in European art or one specific master, but also in African, Japanese, Indian, and Latin American art.
As a self-taught artist my schooling and my inspiration has always come from the museums from all over the world, books, and the exchange of ideas and perceptions with serious and committed artists. I am in a constant search, and through my personal library I study certain artists everyday, make comparisons, I try to figure out how this or that work was executed. Because one is continually learning, growing and developing.

Question:
Which direction do you see your work going from here?

AR:
The work imposes itself and changes slowly and according to one’s inner visions and intuitions. Painting creates painting. It is a never ending guess, a lifetime of fight to realize a vision of the world. So work is always in progress and only you finish it when you die, and what is left is merely a testimony of your search.

Question:
How do you want to be remembered as an artist?

AR:
As someone who followed his own intuition, intellect, doubts and believes without changing course, and who tried to put that into painting. Someone who, while always respecting and learning from the tradition of painting, had always felt a responsibility with his own time and generation.

Lee Ortega Human Comedy Bass Museum of Art 2006 | 2011 | essays

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