Everyone has their own pandemic story now. Many are tragic, most are emotional wipeouts, some are just weird, all are transformative. Artist Tony Rodrigues’s story seems to be about keeping his shoulder to the wheel.
“I had some plans,” he laughs, about the weeks and months prior to COVID. “But after the lockdown began, I really stayed for hours in my studio. I’d do this thing where I’d stay up until four in the morning and work, sleep, and do the same thing until I hit the reset button. I haven’t really painted anything exceptionally big. Really as much because my studio has gotten crazy since there are paintings and junk everywhere. I’ve been doing a lot of looking and thinking. But it’s really been a pretty productive time. Although the classes stopped at the school.”
The “school” he refers to is the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility (PDF), a place where Rodrigues has spent the last 20 years teaching detained juveniles the history of, and how to make, visual art. He works under the auspices of the Cathedral Arts Project and the program has been praised by the State Attorney’s Office, among others. The pandemic has put an indefinite freeze on Rodrigues’s weekly visits to the DOC facility, as well as other community-geared endeavors, including weekly art sessions at downtown Baptist’s Adult Behavioral Health Center.
In these past rattled months, what has not been put on hold is Rodrigues’s prodigious output.
“I feel like the new pieces are feelings or ideas that have been cooking the past couple of years, from my 2018 show at UNF, with the disintegrating buildings and the textures are getting fatter and fatter.”
That solo show, Frail History and Future Regrets (When The Past Was What It Used To Be), featured a staggering 30-plus paintings, which riffed on themes of decay via smash-and-dent symbolism, and his signature use of figures, structures, vehicles, and creatures that evoked an increasing sense of all-is-one animism. The fattening of textures was thanks in no small part to the increasing use of powdered marble.
“Around 1995, I went to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and saw large-scale work by Antoni Tàpies and he used powdered marble and latex as materials and it just blew me away,” says Rodrigues, who would experiment with the materials shortly after before moving on.
Decades later the marble reappeared in his work, though, adding a unique dimensional, textural, even thematic, quality.
“The crushed marble is metaphorical, with classicism, Greco-Roman ideals, the idea that painting is a ‘dead medium’ and obsolete. The technique is like wet-on-wet with acrylic and latex and typically takes a few applications to get what I want. And the paintings look like they’re disintegrating but they’re actually very stable.”
Rodrigues has no shortage of mindsets and motivation. All is in motion. If there truly is a sort of benignly beneficent form of artistic mania, minus hiding from the Federal Bureau of Invisibility on down-time, Rodrigues’s mind crackles with that impressive Promethean fire. Over the course of an hour-plus conversation, he shifts from topics including Dmitri Shostakovich’s delusional genius, Throbbing Gristle-spinoff band Coil, the tragicomic spinouts of the American automobile industry, installing a Claes Oldenburg in a ‘70s antiquated local office space, the ravenous cycle of cultural heat-death, and the subtle symbolism evoked from his youth spent in Arlington. But these aren’t rambling asides; Rodrigues threads them all together, generating an insightful, non-linear, often humorous, and truly engaging back-and-forth.
Humor has always been evident in some of Rodrigues’s work, but even that emotion has at times seemed to be laughter flicking off the knife edge. The current work seems more somber, or at least deeply ruminative.
“The work became increasingly spooky,” he says, referencing a piece, Near Future Office Park (Ghost Signals) (36” x 48”; 2018), featuring crumbling buildings, color-line phantoms of a coyote and a broken Greco-Roman figure riding a swan; the action below seemingly monitored by black helicopters. He says he’s been influenced by his experiences installing work in the homes of corporate clients, which sometimes looked like “generic office spaces. It’s interesting how quickly that look of modern architecture became this bland, cookie-cutter result.”
Movement, transportation, and vehicles fuel newer works. “I don’t know if the vehicles signify transportation, departure, or even means of escape. But with the cars specifically, I think, ‘What would be left behind?’ Like Pompeii: what would people be looking at?”
Civilization (24” x 30”; 2020) features an airplane coasting above (or barreling towards) a graveyard-of-a-hospital, with a Caduceus symbol on the wall of the building reduced to a mere logo, or at the most, a brittle and cracking symbol of healing. In Departed Optimists (30” x 30”; 2020), two middle-aged men sit in a kind of UFO-car, seeming perplexed while encased inside a glass bubble, parked in front of a yellow, abandoned building, as sparse shoots of greenery dot the surrounding concrete. The whole effect of the piece is to be terminally “in park”; static and immobile.
He says the cars highlight obsolescence. “The heyday of US cars was when they were all giant steel that burned through gas. As American cars became more fuel efficient; they became way less cool. They can be artifacts of success, failure, or mediocrity depending on the car.”
The most recent piece, Starting Over, Again (24” x 30”; 2020), is the alchemical distillate of Rodrigues’ toggling ideas of the eternal and the disposable, things designed to fall as they rise, with its satellite dish and Great Pyramid in the distance tethered by a black sun, a camper and mini pickup truck comical by default and proximity. “It’s vapid loss culture,” explains Rodrigues. “Incongruous mystery paintings, myths. These landscapes are sets that are really unclear: when was this, what time was this, even what planet is this?”
These recent works never come across with heavy-handed morality or arrive with some visual bird of omen. If Rodrigues’s recent works are cautionary tales, it’s evident that message will go unheeded. No one wants the antidote. We’ll hold out for the next one.
“The paintings aren’t emotionally decorative. And there’s the thing of nostalgia being inherently morose. It’s like the Portuguese word saudade: there’s no literal English translation. It’s like a sad longing.”
We all live for the upgrades. Few want our now-disposable dreams and desires. We ignite them, shove them off the road, and grin for the selfie. Tony Rodrigues is more of a cerebral documentarian than a webinar psychologist. Give him his hoarded-up studio at four in the morning, and maybe a dog or two to help keep him awake as he paints.
“There’s this fragility of society, how it pins on our economy… but then again I think there’s a sort of thread of broad futility, a sudden disquieting. I enjoy being in the studio and fighting these things. But I also don’t really question why I’m painting certain things or a certain way.”
This article originally appeared as the Arts Feature under the headline “Do The Collapse” in Void Magazine’s Winter 2020 issue.