Rocío Rodríguez and Lilly Wei in Conversation
Lilly Wei: Would you tell me a little about your earlier work? Were you trained as a painter?
Rocío Rodríguez: I have always been a painter. In college in the mid-1970s, I painted life-sized figures. In grad school, my work turned to abstraction, to great fields of broken color, based on the landscape. After that, when I moved to a farm in Ohio, I started painting large-scale landscape paintings, the subject was pretty much what I saw beyond my front yard. Then the figure came back in the mid- 1980s in crazy hyper-expressive, claustrophobic paintings that were both baroque and expressionist. My work, in response to that, became much more personal and I returned to the figure, basing my images on the body. The paintings were now also metaphoric/symbolic with a lot of wound imagery, dismembered bodies, blood. Sometimes the style was very minimal but the tone was clearly “hot” as opposed to cool and detached. After that, I became involved with the ornamental and the decorative.
LW: That seems to be quite a shift, from wounds and dismembered bodies to the decorative, although you seem to be alternating between the figurative and the abstract from the beginning. What prompted the latest return to abstract motifs? Or what prompts the cycle?
RR: In my mind representation and abstraction are a continuum. The content of the work can affect the visual language that I use. Sometimes the change in the cycle has been prompted by a desire to speak directly, by presenting something carefully, literally and with the baggage that accompanies imagery. At other times, the need is to speak indirectly through the suggestive, through metaphors and symbols. The images that preceded the decorative started out figuratively and as the work became more personal, the language became more abstract. My turn towards abstraction is oftentimes prompted by a need to express a variety of meanings and subtexts that parallel what I am experiencing in my life but I want to express it privately, discreetly. The viewer doesn’t need to know everything.
LW: I know that when you were in Rome as a recipient of the Southern Regional Visiting Artists’ Award in 1996, you were very intrigued by ancient Roman wall paintings and the architectural details and decorative flourishes depicted in them. I wonder what drew you to them and what works most interested you?
RR: I looked at a lot of wall paintings and floors of 1st century BCE Roman houses in the Palatine, Ostia Antica and Pompeii. I also looked at many examples of decorative tiles on
the floors of various churches and at numerous floor mosaics that were figurative, patterned with abstract ornamentation or both. My interest in these genres was rooted in my past. I was born in Cuba and spent my childhood there. Interior spaces in Cuba were usually rich in intricate tile and grill work and profusely colored. My first contact with the world was to be immersed in this abundantly sensuous environment of color and pattern. The Roman experience re-connected me with the imagery of my childhood and awakened the need to incorporate sensuality in my own work.
LW: You have also used a single motif—the lily—in the past which you presented in a number of ways, from the very representational to the abstract, the image deconstructed, the symbolism complicated and not necessarily canonical. You said somewhere that the subject was risky. Would you elaborate?
RR: The flower paintings evolved out of the ornamental paintings and were, in essence, a transgressive act. I wanted to free myself of rules and ideologies and flowers are a subject laden with taboos, particularly for a woman and particularly for one who was trained in the modernist tradition. I wanted to be conceptually free, to get the art world and art history off my back and out of my studio. The subject came naturally as I was looking through some fashion magazines one day. I began tearing out images of things I found interesting. When I finished, all I had on the table were large sheets of color (abstraction) and flowers (representation). For me, there was an element of excitement attached to the thought of painting flowers. It appealed to me because the risk was enormous. I also knew that making these paintings would expand my ideas about painting. It wasn’t so much about the paintings themselves; it was really about discarding attachments to received ideas, of re-examining what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘fine art.’ The reason for making them was precisely to cross what I perceived as an art boundary. I didn’t want the paintings to reflect the conceptual transgression itself. I didn’t want a subtext to accompany the paintings. They needed to be just what they were. I, on the other hand, needed to experience the transgression, feel uncomfortable, and then integrate those feelings. They were the riskiest paintings I have ever made and they freed me.
As I continued to paint them, I began to deconstruct the image and allow abstraction to enter the work again. The lily was free of symbolism; it was only a vehicle for new concerns that were emerging in the work. One question particularly interested me: what is the nature of a specific thing if it can be represented in various ways, even in opposing ways?
LW: You once stated a desire to validate subjects that were not considered heroic. Is that a feminist position? And how is your feminism expressed in the new work?
RR: I’m not sure I’ve actually put it in those terms. The “heroic” didn’t enter into my decision to paint flowers. All of the subjects and ideas that I pursue in my work are first made from a painter’s stance and depend on what images are interesting to me and why. Nonetheless, I am also very aware that I am a woman who is a painter; context is important. When I painted the flowers some women told me I was very brave to take that on while others were perplexed; they thought that I was embracing a female stereotype. But for me, by painting flowers, I was saying they were valid as an image and the fact that I was a woman painting them was inconsequential.
LW: How have you diverged from your previous paintings and drawings in this new body of work?
RR: I’ve found resolutions to a lot of previous issues—the question of beauty, how to address the essential nature of something without being specific and the push and pull of abstraction and representation in my work. About a year and half ago I started to photograph my drawings and put them into the computer. I would then draw on these inputted images, taking sections of them to build new compositions. These fragments generated my paintings. This was a new process for me and allowed me to integrate drawing and painting, the figurative and the abstract more fluently. There is evidence in this new work of where I have been the past eight years, particularly in the lyrical line and the traces of the ornamental. There are also new elements and opposite impulses—the mechanical, the architectural, the graphic that oppose the painterly. This work is more of a synthesis of my thinking and presents the dialectical nature of my painting more clearly than past work. The dialectic has always been in my thinking but has not always been visually expressed.
LW: Where does your sense of color come from?
RR: Color is rarely an intellectual decision. It is felt.
LW: But most artists have a signature palette and even if felt, it is conditioned by some kind of influence. In looking at this group of paintings, your colors are abstract, anti-natural and without any cools, such as greens or blues.
RR: You are right, my colors are abstract. I am not interested in color suggesting a narrative in this work. But there are reasons behind the choices. If you notice, some of the titles of the paintings are based on military terms. War of Attrition is red and white; red of course is a natural choice for expressing conflict. Armistice is yellow and pink and has a pastoral, joyful feeling to it. Rules of Engagement is predominantly orange, a color that I associate with urgency, so the color is more psychological than natural. I don’t come up with titles and then paint the paintings. The images always come first. But I do keep a list of words or phrases that sometimes spontaneously suggest themselves to me as I am working. I think of them as messages from the sub-conscious, since sometimes they parallel the content of the work. For me, color is very intuitive.
LW: And what determines your scale, which is often quite enveloping and architectural in its ambition?
RR:I have done very small work but I have always preferred to work large. I want to figuratively walk into the space that I am painting and occupy it. I spend hours moving little pieces of black tape on a wall before I decide on the size of the image I am going to paint. I don’t have an interest in creating monumentally large paintings as such. The size refers to a specific physicality, one that relates to human scale.
LW: Discuss a little the relationship of line and color in your work, of the graphic and the painterly. Do you consider drawing more rational than painting, or color?
RR: I never think of drawing as being more rational than painting. For me, there are other
distinctions. Drawing, for instance, is a process that is constantly in the act of becoming. Painting, however, has to be resolved in the end, completed. The graphic vs. the painterly is a way of using one to describe the other. The graphic possesses a flatness that gives volume and physicality to the painterly. The painterly feels organic, hot and engaged while the graphic feels synthetic, cool, and detached. I need both to create tension. The line keeps your eye moving through the composition, making connections. But I want it to be clear that painting for me is more than just playing with formal elements.
LW: You have described your work as perceptual, that it was about the “language of seeing,” which is a classic modernist trope. However, perceptual paintings--or retinal paintings—are defined differently these days and have become more open-ended, more inclusive. How would you describe your notion of perceptual painting and has it changed in response to current practice?
RR: The language of seeing encompasses many things. I don’t separate seeing from thinking. When I look at a thing, a shape, it either represents something or it doesn’t, it can be open-ended or it can be specific. I am very comfortable with ambiguity. In my work I attempt to present a fusion between contradictory elements and different ways of perceiving and understanding form. My usage of the word perceptual encompasses a visual deciphering of form and its many possible meanings. Retinal for me implies an exercise in seeing only the grammar of painting. Painting is bigger than that.
LW: You mentioned the issue of beauty in your work and indicated that there has been a conflict of sorts which has been reconciled in the new work. But just as you thought flowers were not usually accepted as an appropriate subject for serious art, so beauty had been exiled for the past several decades, and has only recently been restored to the discourse and rehabilitated. But the prejudice against beauty is that it is without agency, that it is frivolous and for the privileged as opposed to an art of engagement which deals with significant cultural, social, and political issues. Would you defend beauty? And would you call what you make beautiful?
RR: I would not call the work I am now making beautiful, but if it was, I wouldn’t have a problem using that word. Past work of mine dealt directly with the issue of beauty but other concerns have taken precedence at the moment. We experience beauty in our lives, so how can we divorce it from our work? And what is beauty? I find the anti-beauty stance so puritanical. It is such an acquired response in art circles. “Oh, its beautiful” is code for “oh, it’s not intellectually heavy”. This position was taught in school, it was part of the late modernist canon to disparage beauty and elevate the sublime. For me, it is a dialectical problem, the aesthetic and the anti-aesthetic can’t exist without each other. I tend to engage in opposites and differences. I don’t ascribe to absolutes, and my paintings don’t depend on theoretical positions but on the experiential. My work includes what I experience directly, and if beauty is part of it, so be it. And does that mean that art that is beautiful can’t be an art of engagement or provocation?
LW: That would depend on how you define beauty; by some definitions, beauty exists in and for itself, otherwise it is not true beauty. But in our revisionist, manneristic times, much has been upended, reversed, hybridized and big issues are often avoided in art at the moment. Speaking of hybridization, would you consider incorporating other media into your work, of crossing disciplines?
RR: Not at present. In regards to hybridization, I think my work is already addressing that conceptually.
LW: I think that everyone—but in particular artists—have moments of blinding insight, of epiphanies. Have you had any and if so, would you describe one and how it altered your views?
RR: I’m still waiting. The most interesting thing that has happened to my process of late is the use of the computer to draw. It has increased the speed of my thinking processes immensely because I can make changes so quickly. Sometimes, it’s not blinding insight that changes your life but being handed the right tool.
LW: Here’s a big question. What do you think of painting today? Can you do it in twenty-five words or less?
RR: Pluralism rules and that is good for painting. But sometimes novelty is confused with substance and painting suffers from that today.
This interview appeared in the catalog “Rocio Rodriguez, Parallel Worlds”, exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, 2006.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator , essayist and critic who writes for several publications in the United States and abroad. A frequent contributor to Art in America, she is also a contributing editor at ART News and Art Asia Pacific.
Rocio Rodriguez, Parallel Worlds exhibition catalog for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Atlanta, GA- 2006