April 1, 2019
Diego Rodriguez-Warner and careful, playful appropriation
We visited Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s studio in his home, which is more of a home in his studio. Every square inch of the space is painted in loud color, dramatic forms, with images of historical artworks, various sizes of plywood, and clippings of fragmented gestural body parts pinned to the wall.
Collaborative sculptures decorate the space differently than the paintings do. Natural light seeps in and plants hug the perimeter of the walls. The few pieces of furniture appear secondary to the artwork in Rodriguez-Warner’s home, some of which are his own and some by friends and other artists. It’s a lived-in, worked-in kind of space, and feels homey despite the fact that he moved in somewhat recently.
When stepping into Rodriguez-Warner’s designated studio there lies a pack of Marlboro cigarettes on the table next to an incomplete work. His art has layers of meaning and his process is collage-like and playful. It’s near hypnotic listening to him talk about his work because of the way he articulates his words, his wit, and the approachable way about him.
Rodriguez-Warner’s transparency and honesty guided the conversation. We talked with him in regards to how he appropriates imagery, what a given work looks like from start to finish, and how his use of trompe l’oeil (a French term that roughly translates to ‘trick of the eye’) almost holds viewers suspended in space.
Walk us through how you started with woodblock printing and how collage and trompe l’oeil became a key technique and element in your work.
So I started making prints in 2008. That was a result of studying art in Cuba and not having access to paint or canvas. We’d make relief block prints because that’s what we had. We’d kick apart pieces of wood, carve it up, run it through a press–and you can make art out of it. I fell in love with the graphic language of prints and with carving the wood, and continued doing that for a couple of years. I got out of school and didn’t have access to a press, so I stopped making prints for a while and started making ink drawings, but continued using the black and white, binary visual language.
Then when I got to grad school I spent the first year experimenting with different painting styles and I realized that they all were the same thing. Even though they looked different, there was this unnamed undercurrent…they all felt the same to me. So it became important to me to separate myself from my own physical hand to see if I could temper that. That’s where the collaging came in, and using other people’s languages and other people’s gestures to then formulate my own vision and really try and find myself in other people’s work.
What was interesting was that even though I started using other people’s work, it still had that same undercurrent. That was something I realized I couldn’t escape. Whether I use other people’s art, or my own art, or piece images together or draw them myself, it’s always going to be mine, in that way.
So carving arose at the end of my graduate school experience as a way to kind of hearken back to the history of printmaking and the particular graphic languages that I was kind of piggybacking.
And what about the way that you collage, specifically with the use of pins in your process?
For whatever reason I don’t like gluing down my collages. One, it’s just wasteful for all the bits you may want to use again. And two, it never sits flat, it never looks the way I want it to. At first I was laying the pieces of paper on top of each other and photographing them and the photograph is how I flattened it to a single plane. I began to notice that in those photographs there were these really subtle drop shadows that the pieces of paper were casting. That became interesting to me as a moment of honesty about how the image was created. And it evolved from there. Instead of laying things flat I began to pin things down and pull the shadows up to accentuate that aspect of it.
In a way, it’s my way of telling you how I’m making this. And I’m telling you that it’s not completely mine, but there’s a space of simulation there that is off-putting and weird. You can destroy perspectival systems. For whatever reason, it made sense for me.
Would you say that the shadows expose your hand in your work? Is that accurate, or not?
Yes. I think whenever you reorganize something, the hand is present. Even though I use other people’s drawings in my work it’s still very much my work.
The inclusion of the shadows is philosophical. I suffer from doubt in art, and wondering whether it means something or wondering whether you can make something new, like most artists do. I think the shadow is me being honest about that question that I have in the work. Like, is it something you can believe in or is it just another simulation?
And formally, they just add a whole other layer of complexity. They double the tonality of a painting, they double the depth of the painting…it does something interesting formally. But the reason why I held onto it for so long is because it’s the way I am honest with the viewer that I am questioning it as well as you are.
Love the honesty there. Since most of your work takes existing images from historical artwork, do you find yourself reimagining the main source, are you making a commentary, are you engaging with popular culture, or…? What are you doing through remixing, collaging, and complicating the imagery?
My answer to that question has changed over the years. I’m trying to grasp where I’m at with it now. At different points I thought of the language of printmaking, in particular, as having a very universal popular appeal.
In the United States there’s Pop Art, and it’s about the language of advertising and the ubiquity of mass visual culture. In Latin America it’s called Arte Popular. Even though it sounds like the same thing, the difference is that Arte Popular means art for the people. Whereas the languages of painting have gone into these esoteric realms, the graphic language of printmaking has always been about communication and people. To me, whether you’re using a line drawing from Matisse or a Japanese print or prints from the German Expressionists, there is a universal readability. It becomes a language above language. There’s an accessibility to it that people can approach the artwork and understand, to a degree, what’s going on in it, you know?
I use the language, and then remix it. It’s funny to me when people are like, “Oh, that’s a Japanese hand” or “that’s a Picasso hand” or something that’s on the complete opposite end of the world. It’s like, “Oh, you think this is from Goya, but it’s Yoshitoshi.” In that muddling of where things come from, it becomes a universal language where people who don’t speak English, or even know much about art, can approach my paintings and still get the same amount out of it. If you’re a person and you recognize gestures and depictions of things, you can get something out of it.
We are living in a time where everyone is so mindful of cultural appropriation, which is a good thing. Have you ever gotten any pushback?
Definitely. Especially with my usage of Japanese paintings.
I originally started using Yoshitoshi prints because it seemed like the furthest thing from me and yet was still somehow familiar. There’s so much beautiful art out of Mesoamerican history, like their pictographs and their mosaics and murals. Mayan and Aztec culture have created amazing images. They would fit very well with my particular outline style. But, when I was in graduate school I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t about what could be perceived as my culture. You know? Because I have a Z in my name, if I use Mayan or Aztec pictographs or even if I borrow ….people would be like, “Oh, he’s talking about his identity” and it was never really about that. I grew up in Denver, I’m not Aztec.
So it was about my position being a young American artist. It was about stealing, in a way. Of course I’m aware that I borrow and use things from other places, but I think stealing is a very American thing. Our culture is kind of a chunky smoothie of everything.
It also is interesting to me that whenever I use a Japanese image that becomes an issue. But when I borrow from the French Impressionists or the Germans that’s somehow okay. Like, there is an accepted pantheon of art that I, as a member of Western civilization, can be influenced by. For me, all of these are imperial countries, I can steal from them whenever I want (laughs). Whether that’s problematic–I am aware that it could come up. I hope that my appropriation is respectful and done out of love and doesn’t denigrate its original culture, and that if somebody has a problem with the work they have a conversation with me about that very issue. But it doesn’t really keep me up at night.
With the content you use and appropriate, do you find yourself charging your work with the same kind of influence, feeling, or moment as the original? Is that inevitable for your work?
I find the reverse to be true. I find it to be inevitably charged with my energy. When I am building an image and it seems to be mostly done or seems to be where I want it to be, they invariably look like something I have made. If I’m leaning too hard on them, something has to give. They all end up being much chunkier and sharper than the originals.
You used the word “energy.” What are you referring to when you use that word?
When I make a painting I want it to have this vibrating feeling, where there’s a sense of unease or anxiety, despite the fact that it is traditionally beautiful, there is something that is not quite right about it. They contain contention. These disparate elements forced together and made to operate as a part a greater whole.
And with the shadows, its like they are all held in this strange stasis space where it seems like something is caught in a field that you can’t understand. I want it to be that they’re loud, bright, and colorful, but there’s something threatening or ominous about them.
Your work is layered in meaning and that is incredibly evident upon walking up to one of your paintings. You could just sit with one of your works for long spans of time, whether you are familiar with the content you use or not.
I hope so. I wonder if having background knowledge on the pieces would affect it or whether it’s enough to just recognize them as something, like as a foot or as a breast and just allow them to be that indexical marker of meaning for that thing that we all kind of understand.
The bright colors you use can often be associated with vibrance, happiness, and other similar adjectives. Those are taught, reinforced interpretations of those colors, especially in the United States. But there’s clearly so much more going on…
The colors are used as a ploy. If you think about carnivorous plants, like Amazonian carnivorous plants, they’re always really bright and colorful and that’s the lure. People get attracted to the painting because it’s so colorful and so friendly, it’s like candy wrappers and Muppets and stuff. Only when they’re caught in the painting do they realize there are barbs in the net and they are stuck in the space of wondering what they’re actually looking at and why is it affecting them the way it is. Color is a tactic.
It’s interesting because everyone always talks to me and says, “Oh, your art is so Latin American,” which doesn’t really make sense to me. For me, Latin American paintings have traditionally used more earth tones, but there is something distinctly Latin American in the sense of trying to make horror and a history of trauma appealing. If you listen to traditional Central and South American music, it always sounds really happy but it’s always about trauma. It’s a dance song that’s about slavery…existing in a history of violence from the outset and making the best of it.
You have been quoted saying that you didn’t believe you could improve upon the work of great artists and thought it was silly to try to do so…
There are some images I cannot improve upon. If it’s a perfect image I am not going to use that. So when it does become included in my painting, it’s because I believe I can do something to it. The female nude, for example. So many of the paintings that made me want to become an artist are nudes, but I look at them now with a critical eye. I think that there is something missing.
The nude is an archetypal motif in art. And it’s about the man looking at the woman and the woman becoming the object for the wealthy to own. When I make them I want there to be some sort of challenge to the viewer’s eye. I want to add a level of complication to something easily understood, even if that is just highlighting that I believe that all images, and especially images of women, are idealized constructions and amalgamations.
In the past I’ve tried to make the subjects of these nudes look really, really bored (laughs). Like, “Uh, I’m in another nude painting, why? I’d rather be storming the barricades on Mars. But instead I’m in another nude painting.” So I try to imbue them with that sort of tension or anxiety, and hopefully make something that isn’t just another decorative thing.
Those archetypes have been reinforced in our culture; we don’t even question it.
Absolutely. Complication and paradox is an undercurrent of my practice. And I also feel like if you don't include images of women, you’re just kind of denying fundamental human desires. If art can’t talk about that, what’s the point of it? You know? So I’m trying to do it in a way that is more responsible, with varying degrees of success (laughs).
Your work requires viewers to disentangle. Since you are the sole creator, the one playing with and collaging these different images together, is there anything that you can verbalize that makes sense to you as you are mixing these images into a completed work?
It shifts from painting to painting. You trust yourself and you feel when something is right. It can be somewhat of a formal exercise, like, “There needs to be something blue right there.”
But for me it’s more about finding each figure’s individual character. Often that is an experimentation of which eyes, mouth, hands [to use], et cetera. Through placing a certain gesture, I activate them in some way.
You start with ideas–like the woman as performer–and then in placing in the extra elements you obliterate the original read and add complication to it. I want to have it vibrate with a certain energy. Its constituent elements, the forms and colors and textures and manners of painting, are all vying against each other or highlighting each other by juxtaposition.
So there’s not a clear idea when you start something, the painting realizes itself as you are collaging and playing around with different compositions?
Yes. The challenge is I can have a very particular idea of what I want it to look like, and that’s why it’s so difficult. If you’re grasping at something that is barely tangible, it’s very frustrating (laughs). It’s easier when you go at it with gusto and just have fun. Like, critical play.
When you’re finished with a work, is there a feeling you’re able to put into words when looking at it?
It’s hard for me to see them in the same way a viewer would see them. I’ve gone through all the steps to make sure they are the way they are, and in that it kind of destroys some of the magic in that I know how they’re made. When a viewer approaches them, there is this moment of suspended disbelief, and I like that they don’t understand it. But I do, so we come at it from different ways. Like the magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the magician knows how it’s done (laughs).
Your hand is in every part of the process from start to finish, so it makes sense that it would take away a little bit of that magic you’re talking about.
Yeah, and that’s where the experimentation and the trying out new things comes in. One, you want to engender an endless curiosity in the studio. But it’s also just to keep me interested in the painting. If I were to make the same thing over and over again until I die, that doesn’t sound very fun.
Obviously your work is your own, but you seem to be cognizant of the fact that so much has already been done in the history of art.
Yeah, there were times in the past when I was. I still like those attempts. It was mostly when I was making ink drawings that I felt like I was exploring a very particular visual language and making it my own. I still love all those drawings that I made, but they weren’t really my own, right? Like, looking at them now, I can see that they are sort of techno-spiritual riffs on so-called primitive figuration and traditional patterning from around the world.
What continues to resonate with me about art is that there’s something timeless about it. This notion of originality is predicated on the art market, in terms of signature style and branded products. If you look at the most famous artists, you can recognize their art like a brand. You can tell who made the thing because style is identifiable to what they do. I suppose for me it was always much more about trying to learn and continue to challenge myself to reach the next stage, whatever that means.
So thinking about Guernica by Picasso…why that sticks out to me isn’t because that has to do with an original moment. It’s not about that town in the the 1930s in Spain…it happened yesterday in Syria. The reason why it’s a great painting is because it touches a universal experience or a recurring universal truth that we can all kind of relate to, no matter when we look at it.
For [my exhibition at] the museum I had a painting called Western Painting, and it’s like this cavalry charge. It’s certainly not about an experience I’ve had, but it’s the idea of a cavalry charge as it exists in all of our imaginations and why it holds relevance in that place.
Right, and that artwork transcends time, in a way...
And it’s super hard to do. One of my professors described “contemporary” as those who can look into the night sky and see the stars that have been born, but whose light has yet to reach us. So you’re trying to look into the future and see what’s coming our way. It’s less about contemporary being firmly fixed in the now, it’s more about trying to think about what’s going to be important 20 years from now.
Tell us more about your works in the Octopus Initiative. They don’t use plywood, they are much smaller, and they have isolated figures, making them much different than your other works…
That was fun because I was really burnt out on making the huge paintings because I just had [the exhibition at MCA Denver in 2018]. And I made the Octopus Initiative works while the exhibition was still up so I transitioned into it. It was a challenge because I had to make 25 artworks, so it was really interesting to limit the scope of the individual pieces to three of four moves each, and just allowing it to be. And also, in my mind, my bigger paintings are comprised of a dozen of those little gestures in one image. So to allow them to breathe on their own and allow the spotlight to just fall on one moment of what would otherwise be a humongous painting, that was revealing to me. Even though they were small and made with crayons on paper, they still had a similar presence and they still worked. That was interesting.
And it is interesting for the viewer to see just one isolated figure after seeing your exhibition at MCA Denver.
Yeah, absolutely. The big surprise was seeing how well they actually still worked, even at that scale. It still does it.
Do you feel like there is self-discovery or self-expression in your work?
I think I try and pretend it’s always aloof, that it’s some serious, conceptual exercise. But I am a human being and of course how you feel affects the paintings you make, whether you like it or not. However, I don’t think I would really call it my self-expression. A friend of mine told me, “I don’t have feelings, I have thoughts.” I don't think it’s quite like that for me, but I do want them to be more about thought than feeling.
For the viewer, feeling is inevitable, especially since I use works by Expressionist painters. In the original artwork there is obvious emotion, and I am piggy-backing off of that and using their emotion, but it becomes slightly more complicated than that.
It’s more about that vibrating energy I was talking about earlier, I think that’s where I exist in the paintings, in that cogitation. Because I give off that vibrating energy, too.
Your work does create another dimension when you are sitting with it and presently experiencing it.
I hope so. One day I want to make a painting that replaces a television. The closest I’ve gotten is in my parents living room where they have one of my paintings next to the TV (laughs).