Rocío Rodríguez on change, not knowing, sunsets and her New York show

Artist Rocío Rodríguez loves her home in Atlanta, where she built a studio 23 years ago, but her art has found a second home in New York. Her third solo exhibit, “Counterpoint,” at The Kathryn Markel Fine Arts gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, opened Jan. 7.

Rodríguez, who was born in Cuba, has work in the collections of the High Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art and Savannah’s Telfair Museums. Her oil-on-canvas painting, “Command,” in which two female figures represent the relationship between the artist and her work — one controlling and the other passive — is included in the on-going exhibition “Art Pioneers, Influencers and Rising Voices: Women in the Collection” at the High. She is represented in Atlanta by the Sandler Hudson Gallery.

Rodríguez’s expression over her 40-year career has evolved from large-scale figurative paintings — with a focus on portraiture and landscapes — to miniature abstractions. She is always in search of engagement that might trigger her curiosity and lead to larger philosophical questions she can work out in “loose, gestural passages of paint, and fragments of images” on a canvas and is as likely to find inspiration in a book, film or dinner conversation as she is in a museum or art gallery.

Her New York show features 14 new paintings rendered in acrylic and graphite pencil on wood panels. Before the show opened, Rodríguez talked about the exhibition, the leap of faith required to start a new painting and the futility of waiting for inspiration to strike.

ArtsATL: How do you characterize your approach to mark-making?

Rocío Rodríguez: Drawing and painting have been two stand-alone activities that I have engaged in during my career. I am not a narrative painter. My imagery is abstract and primarily I make work that deconstructs my visual vocabulary. In this particular exhibition both drawing and painting are expressed within a composition. The shapes in these works begin to form or disappear, presenting various states of formation. I have always been interested in the paradoxical, creating a space where images are not necessarily fixed and expressing a balancing act between stasis and movement.

ArtsATL: What is the “Counterpoint” exhibit about?

Rodríguez: The work for this show is quite different from the last body of work that was exhibited in 2021 at the Sandler Hudson Gallery. Those paintings were large and monochromatic and were a total departure from previous work. They were based on the landscape — actually on sunsets — after a journey I took out West.

I was intrigued by tackling the sunset as a subject that can be so cliché. A sunset that doesn’t look like a sunset? Ha! How many images of one have you seen? Zillions. So I wanted to take that on and see if I could make paintings that went beyond the cliché of the beautiful sunset. I removed the color and the drama that it can bring, to access a more direct and perhaps nuanced view of the subject.

After I made these paintings, I made a series of small abstract drawings that were saturated in color, almost as a counter reaction to the previous work. Those small drawings then gave way to the small paintings that are being shown in New York.

The appeal of the sunset as a subject, for me, is that it is a moment in time when something is vanishing as it is forming. It is a purely transient moment in time. The connection to the work in New York is that those paintings, within their very abstract vocabulary, also present something that is transforming as it is being made.

ArtsATL: You are a self-described studio junkie. What does this mean? And what do you find in your studio that you cannot find beyond that space?

Rodríguez: It means I’m an artist who is happy to be in the studio working all the time, regardless of any planned or future exhibitions. What I find in my studio is quiet focus.

ArtsATL: As far as process goes, is the genesis of your paintings consistent?

No. I work with the same materials — paint, paper, canvas, panels — but when I finish a series of works I try to change up something. It might be scale, or going from a palette of color to one that is tonal/monochromatic. I try to find something I haven’t done before and explore that. In these most recent works, I started drawing on the panels and incorporated that approach as well as erasing. Then I included paint.

I never know what the first mark is going to be. I just start and let the image evolve until a conversation begins between me and the image on the canvas or paper.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

ArtsATL: You’ve called routine “a creativity killer.” When and how did you reach this conclusion?

Rodríguez: I find the predictable very boring. I thrive when things are in flux and spontaneous. That not only applies to art making but life in general. Some routines are necessary, like having the discipline to be in the studio working, but growth is where it’s at for an artist. Change brings on creativity.

ArtsATL: Describe three practices you’ve adopted as antidote to routine.

Rodríguez: I travel out of town whenever I can to change my perspective, to get out of my studio and see something different. I walk every day and always take a different route. In my studio I try to do something different on a drawing that I did yesterday.

ArtsATL: Must inspiration strike before you attempt a new painting? Or is the process reversed?

Rodríguez: If I waited around for inspiration to strike I would never get anything done. As a wise artist once said: “Inspiration only visits those who are working,” which means that it comes from the process. You find yourself engaged in the work and then something new happens that you haven’t done before and that you really don’t understand. If it feels “inspired,” new, risky, that’s inspiration. It’s not sitting around waiting for the spirit to strike you.

ArtsATL: What have 40 years of painting taught you about the misconceptions surrounding inspiration as a necessary first step to creativity?

Rodríguez: Most people who don’t create don’t understand the difficulty involved in the creative process. Days can turn into months when everything you do ends up in the trash can. Making art is not all ‘fun’ or ‘play’ in the studio. Instead you have to go in there and hope that something will show up on that piece of paper or canvas that will put things in motion.

ArtsATL: Your evolution as an artist has been marked by a series of shifts: from figurative to abstract paintings, from large-scale canvases to paintings on a more intimate scale, from bold colors to black and white palettes. What inspires the shifts? Does change come easily to you?

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Rodríguez: The need to grow and not repeat myself is what inspires the shifts in my work. The desire for change comes easily for me, but change itself is hard. I know it’s time to change when there is nothing else to say with a body of work.

ArtsATL: Do you find it difficult to abandon a vocabulary if it’s proven successful to critics, collectors, gallerists and/or curators?

Rodríguez: No. The work comes first, aside from an audience.

ArtsATL: What keeps you up at night these days, that we’re likely to see worked out on future canvases?

Rodríguez: I work from a “not knowing” place until it appears in my studio. I try not to think about the studio and what I’m working on when I’m not in there. The mind needs a rest.

ArtsATL: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an artist in Atlanta?

Rodríguez: One advantage is affordability, in comparison to New York and Los Angeles. But even younger artists are finding it hard to find affordable studio space here and are having to look further out of the city. I was lucky to have built a studio attached to my house 23 years ago. Not sure I could do that now. The disadvantages: Support for contemporary visual arts is still lacking given the money in this town. But it’s not always about money; it’s about interest.

Gail O’Neill is an ArtsATL editor-at-large. She hosts and coproduces Collective Knowledge — a conversational series that’s broadcast on TheA Network — and frequently moderates author talks for the Atlanta History Center.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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