“PASSAGES ON EARTH – LA VIDA ES UN SUENO”

by Wendy M. Blazier
Senior Curator
Boca Raton Museum of Art

“One makes oneself a visionary
by a long, immense, and reasoned
disordering of the senses “

-Arthur Rimbaud (French, 1954-1891) in Letter from the Seer, 1871

Just as the symbolist poet Rimbaud’s words record his path to revelation where all nursed illusions collapse, Arturo Rodriguez’s paintings portray a disquieting
vision of life’s passages-unpredictable, swept along by chance and by circumstances beyond our control.

One of the most talented and consistent painters of the first generation of Cuban artists who arrived in the United States in the 1970, Rodriguez creates works synonymous with the best figurative expressionist painting today. Over the last twenty years, he has produced a body of work unique in its fusion of formal and emotional intensity. One is struck immediately by these images, by their restless pathos, chaos and upheaval, where simultaneous events take place collaged together without concern for scale, where stormy landscapes swallow up figures that seem at once both integral and estranged. Silhouetted against the wanderings of a torn world, Rodriguez’s figures float defenseless, in a fairy tale that has no ending. And like the figures in his paintings, the artist himself is poet of the present and phantom of the past, exiled and existing in a place where life and survival are inseparable from art and imagination.

Arturo Rodriguez has lived in Miami for almost three decades. Tucked in an all but invisible neighborhood, a heartbeat from historic Little Havana, Rodriguez lives in a 1935s bungalow house whose wooden floors and stucco walls are home to a menagerie of telling objects – Spanish majolica pottery, Persian glazed tiles, Indian miniature paintings, Mexican masks – and paintings, his elegiac haunting paintings, stacked five deep, leaning against walls, walls of books in crowded rooms where a half dozen paintings are in progress, and walls holding thousands of music CDs ceiling to floor. Music informs the artist’s life, fills the house, and resonates from his work.    “Music for me is essential – I always paint with music. My pictures have much musical influence, as far as brushwork and composition…I want the pictures to have the same effect as music has on the listener, but in the language of painting.”    The deep rhythms of Cuban bassist Cachao, the melodic melancholy voice of Beny More, the virtuosity and genius of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, and the contrapuntal perfection of Bach flood the senses.
Like Baroque music and jazz, Rodriguez’s paintings are intended to flood the senses and affect the viewer. And like music, they balance contrapuntal and harmonic influences, consonance and dissonance, and the conviction that they represent emotional states of being, exploring revelatory improvisation while never losing sight of a fundamental structure. Rodriguez’s fundamental structure is painterly figuration and his conscious or unconscious participation in the Spanish tradition of painting – from El Greco to Velazquez to Goya. At the same time, the artist paints intuitively – improvisationally – without artifice, elegant finish, or didacticism. What results are visionary interpretations of a world parallel to the commonplace, where formality and chaos coexist, and where the centrifugal force of upheaval and uncertainty colors the world. Rodriguez’s paintings provide visual concrete anchorage in a life adrift.

Whereas it is easy to acknowledge the haunting and chaotic imagery in Rodriguez’s work, there is a brooding romanticism and a melancholy timelessness that is undeniably beautiful. There is no doctrine, no urgency, no grief, no euphoria. These are not paintings of private fears. We can read them as observations on the universal condition of mankind at the mercy of cruelty, uncertainty, and impending tragedy, but we have no facts other than the artist’s exile from his homeland, upheaval and displacement. He seems obsessed with capturing the enigmatic struggle of life and mankind’s groping unpreparedness in the face of so much uncertainty.

These stream-of-consciousness improvisations are drawn from the artist’s incorrigible imagination, from his dreams, childhood memories, medieval manuscripts, philosophy, literature, poetry, music, history, a confusion of fragmented ideas and influences that together set the tone for our lives.

Rodriguez tells us that he is a pessimist and a skeptic. He paints the vices, not the virtues, of human character, the fears, not the joys. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, it is The Inferno that we remember, the passage through “hell on earth.” Rodriguez, like Dante, forges his own path of self-revelation. Rodriguez, like Dante, is a poet in exile from his homeland. And like Dante, he lives in a time of vast inequities, economic prosperity and poverty, freedom and authoritarian regimes, intellectual and artistic ferment, political struggle, war, and a feeling among many that civilization is corrupt and reeling toward doom. Whether dream or reality, and possibly a confused combination of both, Rodriguez’s paintings reveal his willingness to lay bare the frailties, the inhumanity, and the passions that drive us. Yet, Rodriguez’s vision is passive. He seems resigned to the maelstrom he paints, for, like Dante, he has learned that the exile may find elsewhere from his native city, an intellectual home in language, art and culture, a home in which he is free to create and express.
While Rodriguez’s work is distinctively individual, it bears a philosophic relationship to Goya’s “Black Paintings” – those horrifying works of madness and nihilism which Rodriguez, upon moving to Spain at the age of fourteen, was intent to experience as the first actual paintings he would see in his life. He rushed to the Prado in Madrid to lose his visual “virginity” with Goya’s “Black Paintings” he has said – a loss of innocence at the Prado, traded for a lifetime of virtuosic sources that provides the traditional structure and ballast in his work.
Labyrinthine melodic arrangements, rhythmical counter dynamics, and the dissolution of compositional structure into improvisation, arriving at a “lightness” in the substructure between improvisation and composition – this is the direction Rodriguez’s work is taking. We see it in his most recent works, a series of paintings inspired by Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations.

Twenty years ago, Arturo Rodriguez’s paintings were smaller, quieter, sweeter, less discordant. The artist will tell you that he cannot – he will not – paint today the endearing and poignant figures we see in “Fools” of 1987 and earlier works. Instead, he has moved beyond innocence, slowly stepping deeper into the abyss of the unknown to mine images culled from an imaginary world fueled by unconscious memory – a world in which each of us is vulnerable, unreachable, and ultimately alone. Still, the eloquence of these paintings suggests that we are not lost–as long as there remain spirits such as his, and the transcendent vision of an exile whose passage on earth lends dignity to mankind.

Wendy Blazier Boca Raton Museum of Art 2002 | 2011 | essays

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