Using art as a light in a dark world with painter Diego Rodriguez-Warner
Diego Rodriguez-Warner has a cinematic origin story. The son of a guerrilla fighter and an international aid worker, Diego started out his studies in higher education focusing on the darkest parts of human history. He was feeling understandably discouraged by humanity until one fateful night at a jazz club gave him the epiphany to totally change course and dedicate his life to being an artist. In this episode, Diego and Alan discuss their shared love of comics and how it shows up in Diego’s work today, the fear of conforming to the tastes of the mainstream, activist art versus timeless art, and how Diego is able to say he’s never experienced failure in art (spoiler: it’s got nothing to do with luck and everything to do with perspective).
Links mentioned in this episode
- Follow Diego on Instagram
- Read about Lesbia Vent Dumois (Diego's tutor in Cuba) on Wikipedia
- Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack on Spotify
- In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca
- The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault
- Learn more about Diego’s exhibition at MCA in 2018
This episode contains mature language and content.
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EPISODE 2: From acting to stand-up and winning over the audience with comedian Janae Burris
EPISODE 3: Creating through grief with indie-pop producer and recording artist ZEMBU
EPISODE 4: Designing to heal the inner child with immersive installation artist Lonnie Hanzon
EPISODE 6: Mental health and representation with comic artists Jacenta L. Irlanda and Diamanto Sala
EPISODE 7: The artistry of food and hospitality with chef Kelly Whitaker
EPISODE 8: Holding up a mirror to the audience with choreographer & performance artist Helanius J. Wilkins
EPISODE 9: Exploring the "true self" with multidisciplinary artist Laura Shill
EPISODE 10: Taking a stand for your art with jazz musician and visual artist Jason Moran
ABOUT DIEGO RODRIGUEZ-WARNER
Diego Rodriguez-Warner was born in Managua, Nicaragua in 1986 and moved to Denver, Colorado in 1990. He holds fine arts degrees from Hampshire College and the Rhode Island School of Design, and he has studied under the Cuban Minister of Fine Arts, Lesbia Dumois, in Havana. At RISD, he was a recipient of the Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship. His work has been shown around the US, in Cuba, and in Germany.
Trained as a printmaker in Havana, Cuba and at the Rhode Island School of Design, Rodriguez-Warner has developed a manner of painting that is informed by woodblock printing and characterized by tromp l’oeil, collage, and art historical references. He enhances the tromp l’oeil by carving into and staining the plywood panels on which he works. Painted shadows and subtly carved ones confuse the eye. This sensation—that of the possibility of depth—is amplified by the layering of forms, figures, and patterns that twist around, melt into, and overlap one another. Some of these familiar fragments might be cribbed from ukiyo-e master Yoshitoshi, or master painters such as Henri Matisse and George Grosz, while others elude identification even as simple shapes.
R. Alan Brooks (00:00):
Hey, I'm R. Alan Brooks, a writer and professor. This is How Art is Born, an MCA Denver podcast about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practice. Today, I'm joined by artist Diego Rodriguez Warner. Say hello.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (00:24):
R. Alan Brooks (00:26):
To start us off, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (00:31):
So, I'm primarily a painter. Who I am and what I do?
R. Alan Brooks (00:35):
That's a big question.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (00:36):
Yeah, it is a big question. I'm a Latin American artist. So, both from Latin America and from the United States. I was born in Nicaragua in 1986. My dad was a Sandinista guerilla fighter. My mom was an international aide worker, went down there to support the Sandinista efforts, and I'm the result.
R. Alan Brooks (01:00):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:00):
We moved to San Francisco in like '91.
R. Alan Brooks (01:02):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:03):
And then to Denver in like '95 or '96. And yeah, I grew up in Denver. I traveled ... Or I went to school out on the East Coast, I traveled a little bit around the world but ...
R. Alan Brooks (01:15):
Where did you go to school on the East Coast?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:16):
I went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts and then I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in ...
R. Alan Brooks (01:21):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:21):
R. Alan Brooks (01:22):
RISD, yeah, okay. I had an uncle in Rhode Island and I went to college in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:30):
Oh nice, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (01:31):
It was the first time I was ever around snow.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:32):
Yeah, it's a lot of snow.
R. Alan Brooks (01:34):
It wasn't great.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:35):
No, dude. I spent like seven years out on the East Coast and I was like, never again. I [inaudible 00:01:40] like Detroit's awesome, like I'm-
R. Alan Brooks (01:40):
I don't have to live like this. You can escape.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:44):
And then I went to Germany and stuff like that and I was like totally done with the cold. I was like nah, give me the sunshine.
R. Alan Brooks (01:47):
Where did you go in Germany?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:49):
R. Alan Brooks (01:49):
Oh, I went to Berlin in 2016.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (01:52):
Nice. Yeah, Berlin, it's a pretty magic city. If I wasn't an artist, I would live there for sure. I've never been so happy and content and just like yeah, felt like so actualized but ... Especially the years that I was right there. It was like right when Michael Brown got killed and there was all this kind of like upsurge of activism and it really seemed kind of fraught here at home and at the time, I mean I was making really bugged out paintings. I still make bugged out paintings. They're very American paintings. They have to do with like an American context, over saturation of information, inability to recognize the truth anymore and Europeans just have no idea. They have no touchstone of like how to enter them. So, yeah, it felt important for me to come back home and help in whatever way I could.
R. Alan Brooks (02:40):
Yes. That's interesting.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (02:40):
R. Alan Brooks (02:40):
Okay, now, so obviously this is going to be ... No, this is good. There's obviously going to be themes of activism in art that come up, particularly given your parents and what you mentioned there but I want to kind of start with when you were young, how did you first connect with art?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (02:58):
So, I mean growing up in Denver is like the MCA wasn't here.
R. Alan Brooks (03:05):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (03:06):
I didn't really have ... With my parents, I didn't really have a habit of going to art galleries. It wasn't really something that we did. We went to the DAM, but the DAM, at the time, was mostly like ceramic artifacts and antiquities. So, my interest in ... Or my avenue into art was through comic books and political posters.
R. Alan Brooks (03:28):
Old comic books, right.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (03:29):
Yeah, so my parents were, obviously, internationally minded and so they collected like Cuban political posters and political posters from Africa and Central America and so growing up, those were all around the home and so that kind of like graphic sensibility was always what I connected with and then comic books in high school, like I wrote my senior thesis about like [Akida 00:03:53] and The Dark Knight Rises and kind of waxed poetic about why these are art. I mean like some 18-year-old is going to legitimize them but ... Yeah, so I was really ... I've always been interested in drawings and prints and when I was a kid, I would like do ... It was like the Bush years, so I'd do like crappy anti-war graffiti but I've always been drawing. I've always been drawing and it just took a while for it to like set.
R. Alan Brooks (04:21):
Yeah. Okay, well, so obviously comics have the really illustrative style with the thick outlines and stuff like that. A lot of graffiti imitates that. Did that strongly kind of influence what you were doing at the time or were you drawing from the posters that you mentioned and ...
Diego Rodriguez Warner (04:39):
Yeah, I mean yeah, the graphic line is really important to me. So, yeah, when I was drawing back then, it was all really graphic. It had like a strong outline and then it wasn't until much later that I began to kind of like trace kind of like the lineage of that line. Like we have graffiti and graffiti kind of like riffs off of comic books and riffs off of like 1960s advertisements, the pop art movement and then that kind of like goes backwards to, like, Matisse was like the first French painter that really used like a really bold outline and he was influenced by like Japanese prints that began to come into Europe at the time. And so kind of like there's this ... You can kind of trace the trajectory of this style, which is what I love about prints is that they all kind of speak like an international common language, very like popular ... When I say popular, I mean like of the people language.
R. Alan Brooks (05:40):
You seem like you were immediately using art to make statements about things. Like was that always important to you?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (05:48):
No, and I don't think ... I still don't think it's important to me.
R. Alan Brooks (05:53):
Because you were talking about the Bush years and using art to kind of comment on that-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (05:59):
Yeah, but that was like teenage, like need to get out of the house and like spray paint some stuff.
R. Alan Brooks (06:05):
But no, so this is good then. What does art do for you? Like what do you ... Are you trying to express something? Are you trying to work through something or is it just ...
Diego Rodriguez Warner (06:12):
So, like when I was in school, I didn't know that you could be an artist.
R. Alan Brooks (06:17):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (06:17):
Like that wasn't ... That was never really like conveyed to me in a way that really set and so when I was in school in Massachusetts, I was studying a lot of like really kind of dark stuff, man. My upbringing always kind of like ... I always had like a really strong attraction to history and politics and so I was studying ... I was basically in like violent studies when I was in school.
R. Alan Brooks (06:46):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (06:47):
So, it was a lot of classes about geopolitics, about economics, about like structures of power. I was studying like how governments oppress populations, just because it was the thing that interested me and I didn't know that you could be an artist.
R. Alan Brooks (07:03):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (07:04):
And so I studied that for like three years and then when I was 21, I had the opportunity to go study in Cuba and due to the political restrictions, I couldn't study any of the things that I had been studying. I would've loved to have done research about like the Cuban intervention angle, because I think that's fascinating and nobody really knows about it but I couldn't study anything political and so I was like, oh, well, I've always done art, I've always liked to do art, I'll just study art. It'll be like a semester off.
R. Alan Brooks (07:32):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (07:33):
So, I went to Cuba and they gave me like a tutor and this woman, she was fantastic. Her name was Lesbia Vent Dumois. I hope she's still alive. I haven't been in contact with her for the last 10 years but she was like this ... She was like 80 years old. She was making art in revolutionary Cuba for 50 years. She was one of the most respected artists on the island.
R. Alan Brooks (07:51):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (07:52):
In fact, while I was down there, she was actually elected like minister for fine arts for the entire island.
R. Alan Brooks (07:59):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (07:59):
And then, I'm just this 21-year-old dip shit who doesn't know anything about art and I'm just like following her around. All the doors are like swinging wide open for her and so Cuba's really where I began to realize that one could be an artist and that was a direct result of seeing how Cuban artists were treated on the island.
R. Alan Brooks (08:17):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (08:18):
When you would say that you were an artist to somebody, they would immediately like begin to treat you with respect because it was ... They recognize that artists are like important contributors to society and culture.
R. Alan Brooks (08:29):
Right. Definitely a different paradigm than America.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (08:32):
Yeah, and thank god I've held onto it because if I decided here, I think it would be a lot different.
R. Alan Brooks (08:36):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (08:37):
But so that was really where it happened and I can tell you the exact moment if you want to know that.
R. Alan Brooks (08:40):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (08:43):
Yeah. So, like I said, up until this point, I had been studying like really dark stuff, disappearances in Chile, the coup in Guatemala in 1952, death squads, like all this really heavy stuff and I think it kind of began to make me feel that humans were inherently bad, that like all we do is destroy and consume but I was in Cuba and I was in a bar and there was a jazz band and I remember sitting at this bar, smoking a cigarette and watching, being like right here next to the trumpet player, like right next to me.
R. Alan Brooks (09:18):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (09:19):
And hearing him play trumpet and like the notes just like soared, and they lifted my spirits so much and in that moment, I realized that yeah, we do do all these inherent things but through art, through music, that is the positive contribution that humans can make. That we do all these terrible things but we also make things of such like heartbreaking beauty that it's worthwhile and so that's what I wanted to be. I was like oh, okay, like instead of focusing on the darkness, I will try to be a part of the light.
R. Alan Brooks (09:49):
Well, first of all, dope origin story. Started talking about comic books and that’s that moment, right? And it's just like Bruce Wayne seeing the bat fly into the window-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (09:58):
R. Alan Brooks (09:59):
[crosstalk 00:09:59] you just heard a jazz trumpet and you were like, yes.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (10:02):
Yeah, I was like holy shit, like this is it. This is it. This is something I can commit the rest of my life too.
R. Alan Brooks (10:07):
Okay. Well, then so we went down this path of me asking you what does art do for you. So is it just creating something beautiful, is that the thing that is central to your ... What is it?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (10:22):
For me, the reason why I love art so much, I remember being in grad school and kind of racking my mind about like what makes a good drawing and like looking at all these drawings, like what about this is what I like? Why is this one good and this one bad? And I think what is most important to me is that art, you can never answer those questions. Like that if things were going well, art is like opening doors and then you walk through them and then there's like three more doors, three more directions that you can go in, right? And I walk through this one and there's three more doors. So you can never get to the end. You never really understand it. So, when I think … my art is most effective is when I'm looking at it and it is like tickling my brain. It's making me think of all these different possibilities and opportunities and avenues and it is like propelling me forward, propelling me into that space. So, I like art because it is kind of impossible to get to the end of.
R. Alan Brooks (11:34):
Ah. That's interesting. Okay, so well, then let’s … practically, man -- so after this Cuban experience, you switched and now you're pursuing art?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (11:46):
R. Alan Brooks (11:47):
Yeah? So what was it like? What were the next steps?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (11:49):
Oh, well, the next steps were like to convince people at my school to give me a studio. I'd been doing all this dark stuff for like three years and then my senior year, I'm like nope, psyche, I'm an artist and so I had to work twice as hard as everybody to show that I was serious about it.
R. Alan Brooks (12:04):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (12:06):
But in terms of like what sort of things I was making, when I was in Cuba, we couldn't really paint because you can't get canvas, you can't get paintings or paint. So what we were doing, we were making prints. We were making woodblock prints.
R. Alan Brooks (12:22):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (12:23):
And that was because like you couldn't ... Like [inaudible 00:12:23] and like carve them up and run them through ... Or print them with a spoon and like make images with it. I remember once we bribed these guys who were refurnishing like an old hotel and they were pulling the linoleum out of the elevators, the linoleum that had been there for 60 years and we were like, "Hey, man, could we get that linoleum?" And so we bought this like old ass linoleum from these guys and we turned that into art. And so when I got back to school, I was just making prints. I was doing a lot of relief prints and that was really ... I have a strong affinity for just like the black and white, the binaries. I think there's a lot of opportunity just within that like framework to explore and find new ways of representing things. So, I was making a lot of prints.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (13:11):
I graduate. All of a sudden, I don't have access to a press anymore, so I can't make those prints. So I just ... I did ink drawings for two years, sticking with the black and white language but just like some ink on paper. I made a living doing that.
R. Alan Brooks (13:24):
So, you come out of school. You don't have access to the printer anymore-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (13:27):
The press, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (13:28):
The press, thank you. And you're doing the black and white ink, and so you're saying you were making a living. So where were you selling them?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (13:37):
Oh, how was I doing that?
R. Alan Brooks (13:41):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (13:41):
God, how was I doing that? It's weird because I still can't really believe that 15 years later, I'm still doing it. So like how am I doing it? I don't know. It's like day-by-day.
R. Alan Brooks (13:49):
Yeah, like who's buying it?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (13:50):
So, what I was doing is I was making ink drawings. I was making ink drawings probably like 11 x 22 inches or something but like these full figures and I was like scanning those and printing them out. At the time, it was Kinko's, now it's probably FedEx or whatever and I was just printing them off really big and selling those for a hundred bucks and I know they weren't archival, they weren't anything but the image themselves were strong enough that people would want to have it.
R. Alan Brooks (14:14):
What were you drawing?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (14:16):
These bugged out figures.
R. Alan Brooks (14:18):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (14:18):
Yeah, I mean that was 10 years ago, so I don't even know if I have any images of them but like really crazy kind of bugged out figures.
R. Alan Brooks (14:26):
So was it based on human beings and then you went-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (14:30):
Yeah, but just-
R. Alan Brooks (14:30):
Put the Diego on them or whatever?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (14:32):
Yeah, exactly, just abstracting them in all of the different ways.
R. Alan Brooks (14:35):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (14:37):
Yeah, I wish I could show you but yeah, they were these ... So, I was doing that and then I connected with artists here in town who would like ... Liked what I did and would help me put on my own shows. I'm a huge proponent ... I don't know how you would still do it because Denver is getting so expensive. At the time, we rented like a warehouse for like $900 and would throw our own shows and slowly build a following of people who were interested.
R. Alan Brooks (15:00):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (15:00):
I was painting murals for the city, which were still bugged out. I don't paint murals anymore because I don't like how murals are used but-
R. Alan Brooks (15:13):
Man, you just say strong stuff that I want to get into.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (15:15):
Go for it.
R. Alan Brooks (15:20):
So what don't you like about how murals are used?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (15:20):
So even back then, you would like partner with the West Colfax Better Business Bureau and they would want a mural and I would show up with like all these drawings and they were all black and white and really forceful and all these kind of tortured figured and they'd be like, "Okay, well, what we want, is we want something that's minimalist and about environmental sustainability and very colorful." And you're like looking at all this black and white abstract-
R. Alan Brooks (15:50):
Why did you bring me here?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (15:53):
Yeah, they want abstract, minimalist, environmental sustainability and colorful and I'm just like looking at this stuff, I'm like, "Yeah, I can do that." I'd just go and paint whatever I wanted because once it's up, they can't ... What are you going to do? But okay, so you connect with these better business bureaus. They put up a mural that doesn't have anything to do with the community.
R. Alan Brooks (16:14):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (16:15):
Or if it does have something to do with the community, it's kind of like the most reductionist form of the community and I just feel that a bunch of these murals, it's just like wallpaper and I don't think that art should be something that you just walk by. I think that art should be something that ... Especially art in public, forgive my French, but it should be like, “What the fuck is that and why is that there?” Something that like interrupts the daily instead of just kind of ... Yeah, I don't know. There's something kind of sick about them that you have these murals and then like these murals cost tens of thousands of dollars and you have homeless people sleeping next to them. There's kind of a weird disconnect there.
R. Alan Brooks (16:54):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (16:56):
Yeah, I don't know.
R. Alan Brooks (16:57):
Okay, no, you made your point really strongly about that. So then the idea about art having this sort of what the fuck effect on people, right, is it that you want people to be ... Like with your art, in particular, do you want people to think about something in particular or is it just, hey, just stop and just pay attention for a minute?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (17:16):
So, in my paintings, they are very beautiful. Sorry, I mean that's a weird thing to say but they are, they are very beautiful and they kind of serve as a net. And so there's really beautiful colors like candy aisle colors really, like kind of luscious reds and greens, pinks and stuff and they immediately attract your attention but like you know there're carnivorous flowers, the flowers that like eat flies and stuff, like they're always really rich and like the colors are very attractive, right? And the fly gets stuck inside of it and that's the same thing that I want to happen with my paintings. That you are immediately attracted to color. You're immediately attracted to beauty but then once you are involved in the painting, you begin to realize the painting isn't quite so friendly and that the painting has some fucked up things in it.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (18:13):
And then the viewer is forced into a place where there's like a moment of rejection, right? But they're already involved in the painting and there's a complicity that comes there that like oh, why am I liking this thing? And once ... And then there's like the formal effects of the paintings. The paintings are really bugged out. There's like three dimensional stuff that's happening and so the question like what is it that I'm actually looking at? How is it made? Where does it come from? All these questions, if they get stuck in that sort of space, I'm super stoked on it and they can take those questions wherever they want.
R. Alan Brooks (18:46):
Nice, okay. So then in terms of when your ideas come to you, how do you choose which ones you go forward with, which ones you reject? Like is there a process or is it kind of random?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (19:01):
I think it changes. Sometimes you'll have a painting in your mind or just like a title and that title will just like stick with you for years and then you're like, I should probably make that painting because it's not going anywhere and then trying to figure out what that title means and how it represents itself. But other times, it's just about play. You get into the studio. You start playing with the materials. You start finding the image that you want and in terms of like kind of distinguishing what to make and what not, I think when I have the opportunity to talk to students, I always tell them not to shoot down their own ideas because you can sit forever waiting for the one brilliant idea. But it's better to have something that you've made to look at, for me.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (19:54):
Like I would rather be working on something and I can look at it and I can look at it objectively and say, oh, this one isn't it but at least I've made it rather than like waiting for like the one perfect idea that's going to break a bunch of brains. It's like no, like that you've made it, when you're making, you are thinking in a different way and when you are making is when you begin to like really start snapping about possibilities and for me, that is the most generative process. I don't sit around waiting for an idea. Like you just start working and the work generates ideas.
R. Alan Brooks (20:28):
Did you always have that or did you have to find your way to that?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (20:31):
No, I've always kind of had that.
R. Alan Brooks (20:32):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (20:33):
Like I've always ... I love art, man. I love to make art. I love thinking about art. I love looking at art and so I've always ... When I get the chance, when I have the time to make art, I'm super stoked to do it.
R. Alan Brooks (20:47):
Okay, so we were going chronologically and you were doing-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (20:49):
R. Alan Brooks (20:50):
No, this is good. This is really good but I just want to get us back to like figuring out …
Diego Rodriguez Warner (20:53):
R. Alan Brooks (20:53):
So, you were doing the black and white ink drawings. You were selling them. And then what was coming next?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (20:57):
So, with those ink drawings, I got into grad school.
R. Alan Brooks (21:00):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (21:01):
And I got to grad school and I was in the printmaking department.
R. Alan Brooks (21:03):
And where did you go?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (21:05):
Rhode Island School of Design.
R. Alan Brooks (21:06):
Oh yeah, you said that, okay.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (21:06):
Yeah. And immediately realized that I wasn't a printmaker because printmakers are very like kind of persnickety. They like to ... All their edges are perfect and all the lines line up and it's like ... And especially where I was at the time, I just ... I was kind of a mess. I was 24 years old at one of the best schools in the world and just like not knowing what I was supposed to be doing and never had taken an art history class and all of a sudden, I'm like studying with people who went to Yale and UCLA and Chicago and like all these places. And so I really felt like I had to work twice as hard just to like catch up. And so I got there making all this black and white stuff but I kind of felt that okay, well, I got it, so now I don't have to do that, right? I already know how to do that, so I can do something else.
R. Alan Brooks (21:57):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (21:57):
And so I just started making really colorful paintings and just playing, trying to figure out what kind of paintings I liked, what kind of things I wanted to make.
R. Alan Brooks (22:05):
What media were you working with when you moved into color?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (22:09):
Dude, like I said, I was ... It was everything.
R. Alan Brooks (22:12):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (22:12):
Yeah, it's still kind of everything. Acrylic paints and latex paints and spray paints and watercolors and crayons, it was just like everything.
R. Alan Brooks (22:18):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (22:19):
Just like oh, dude, I get to study art? Like this is the coolest thing ever. Like I'll just do it all, you know?
R. Alan Brooks (22:24):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (22:26):
And like they weren't all good, man. There's a lot of really bad things I did in grad school but that's what it's for, is to fail and to figure things out. So, yeah, I did that for my first year, I just made like literally hundreds of paintings and by that summer, I was just so burnt out, I like didn't want to paint anymore but I still had to make a living, so I was like taking commissions for T-shirts or album covers or whatever.
R. Alan Brooks (22:51):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (22:53):
And instead of painting those commissions, I was cutting apart my old paintings and I was collaging them. For whatever reason, I don't like to use glue. It just like ... It never looks right. And so instead of gluing my collages down, I was just laying them on top of each other and photographing it and that's how I would create the image.
R. Alan Brooks (23:09):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:10):
And that kind of like led to the paintings I'm making now.
R. Alan Brooks (23:12):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:12):
Which is I still make like these three-dimensional collages and I photograph them and that becomes the paintings. So it just came like ... It looks like a straight line when you look back on it but at the time, it was just like oh, I'm too tired, I'm just going to do this.
R. Alan Brooks (23:27):
Well, it's interesting because if you didn't use glue and you put them together and take a photo, that means that they only existed in that moment, right?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:34):
R. Alan Brooks (23:34):
Because you could take it apart and reassemble it into something else.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:36):
R. Alan Brooks (23:37):
So, are you still kind of doing that?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:38):
R. Alan Brooks (23:39):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:40):
Yeah, so in my studio, I have a whole wall that's all just like these fragments that I've used in all these different paintings and they get reintegrated into every new painting.
R. Alan Brooks (23:50):
So, do you take the photo and then paint over that photo or is it just ...
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:55):
No, I take that photo and I project it out.
R. Alan Brooks (23:57):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (23:58):
And then make these big paintings.
R. Alan Brooks (23:59):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:00):
R. Alan Brooks (24:01):
Such an interesting process.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:02):
Yeah, it's crazy.
R. Alan Brooks (24:03):
And you say you still pretty much use like whatever media-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:07):
Yeah, I still incorporate all those media, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (24:10):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:11):
And wood carving too.
R. Alan Brooks (24:13):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:14):
That's like the printmaking part, you know?
R. Alan Brooks (24:16):
Well, it's funny, when you were talking about teachers ... Well, kind of like America not respecting comics back in those days-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:24):
R. Alan Brooks (24:25):
... I had teachers who openly mocked me for writing and drawing comics, right?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:28):
Yeah, for sure.
R. Alan Brooks (24:28):
But my eighth grade art teacher was cool, one of my few cool teachers ever and she said, she was teaching Renaissance art and she was like, Alan, if you were a Renaissance artist, you would be Albrecht Durer, and she started showing me all his wood prints and stuff like that.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:46):
Oh yeah, dude.
R. Alan Brooks (24:46):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:46):
Dude, that print that he made of a rhinoceros, have you seen that?
R. Alan Brooks (24:49):
Oh yeah, yeah.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:49):
Yeah, where he had never seen a rhinoceros but he like drew it, dude, Albrecht Durer is the man.
R. Alan Brooks (24:54):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (24:55):
He's crazy. Yeah and so yeah, because of the interest in comic books, that's printmaking, dude. Like that's ... Start looking like Aubrey Beardsley, like old illustrations, art nouveau. Like dude, I love all that stuff, man. I love all that stuff.
R. Alan Brooks (25:08):
Right on. Okay, so then right now, as an artist, what I'm getting is you want people to react and then whatever their thoughts that they have after that, cool.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (25:21):
R. Alan Brooks (25:22):
Where is your practice showing up the most? Do you prefer galleries? Do you want ... Like how do you want people to interact with your art?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (25:28):
I like museums.
R. Alan Brooks (25:31):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (25:32):
Yeah. I would like to have more museums. No, I mean I still make smaller things and have sales that like ... Like affordable things. Right now, my paintings are kind of getting expensive but I try to still make things that people can actually buy, especially working in Denver. Denver isn't like a huge city. People don't really have the sense of appreciation or like budget that people in other cities have and so I'll still make things for like $1000. And it's awesome whenever I get to go to a friend's house or like one of my brother's friend's house and I walk into their house and they have a piece of mine and it's awesome.
R. Alan Brooks (26:11):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (26:12):
I don't think like the purity and the conceptual purity of a gallery or museum, sorry, I was doing air quotes, of a gallery or museum is so necessary for art. I think that art is something that people should live with and be affected by. Yeah, it's crazy. I saw one of my buddies a couple of days ago and he showed up super excited and he had like a piece of mine tattooed on him.
R. Alan Brooks (26:37):
Oh wow that's ...
Diego Rodriguez Warner (26:37):
And it's a piece that he bought 15 years ago that has been a part of his life and that has affected him to the point where he would like it immortalized on his skin, which is crazy.
R. Alan Brooks (26:48):
Yeah, that's pretty amazing. How does that make you feel?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (26:52):
It makes me feel great. I mean when you're in a studio and you're working by yourself, you're just talking to yourself, like is this good? Is this what I should be doing? Is this like a waste of time? Are people going to like this? And it's not until you can open the exhibition or show the artwork that you get to realize oh, did it hit? Are people going to get this? And so whenever people have my work and whenever people come up and talk to me about my work and that it like resonates with them and it makes them think about like relationships they've had in the past or moments of history or whatever, it's like that's the ... It's so gratifying. Yeah, there's really no words for it.
R. Alan Brooks (27:40):
Okay, so you were talking about the importance of art being accessible for the people and stuff like that but you also said that you like your stuff in museums. What do you like about that?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (27:52):
I like space.
R. Alan Brooks (27:54):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (27:54):
Yeah. I make really big paintings and I really love to make those big paintings because to me, they're the most comprehensive challenge. They're like ... One of the things I really love about making the paintings I do is they require a lot of forethought, a lot of like critical thinking and problem-solving skills like what goes in front of what? Like in terms of layering, how am I going to make this thing?
R. Alan Brooks (28:18):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (28:19):
And then they're extraordinarily challenging to actually make and they fill me with a greater sense of accomplishment. It's like this really complicated puzzle that you're trying to solve and then you do it and it's like ... It feels ... There's nothing like that feeling but they're huge. They're like 16 feet wide. They're not going in anybody's house or they're not going in anybody's house that I know.
R. Alan Brooks (28:42):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (28:44):
And they're usually not really going into galleries because galleries don't have that much space either.
R. Alan Brooks (28:48):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (28:48):
So, I like museums because there's enough space to actually like look at the paintings.
R. Alan Brooks (28:54):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (28:55):
R. Alan Brooks (28:56):
That's pretty cool.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (28:57):
R. Alan Brooks (28:58):
Hmm, okay, so we're talking about the insecurities that you feel like in the studio, so first of all, can you think of a time when you had an idea, something, a project you're working on that did not work out and then the second part of that question is how did you deal with that?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (29:21):
Nothing comes to mind of something that didn't work out.
R. Alan Brooks (29:23):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (29:23):
Yeah, I generally see things through. I mean there are ideas I've had where I haven't made them yet.
R. Alan Brooks (29:30):
Was there anything that felt like a setback then?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (29:32):
Dude, I've been extremely fortunate.
R. Alan Brooks (29:34):
Oh, that's cool.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (29:34):
Yeah, and I guess like there were setbacks, I mean sometimes like yeah, when I came back from Germany, I moved back to Denver and I was extraordinarily poor and I remember people were like making fun of me for like eating out of 7-11. It was like at the time, it's like well, I can either eat these like garbage hotdogs and afford paint or I can do something else. And so I made the decision, like if I'm going to be an artist, I need to get paint. But it didn't feel like a setback at the time. It felt like okay, this is what I have to do. I've missed a lot of birthday parties and get-togethers and like just because I'm in the studio and I'm trying to do something. But it doesn't ... I guess, for me, I've always really believed in what I was doing. I always believed that somehow, it would work out. I believed that my paintings were good even when they weren't. I believed that it was something worth committing my life to.
R. Alan Brooks (30:44):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (30:44):
And that kind of belief kind of sheltered me and protected me from all these naysayers, oh, you're never going to make a living off this. Nobody's an artist. And I always kind of like armored myself up with like that belief that not only was this something valid but it was something that was going to happen, it was only a matter of time.
R. Alan Brooks (31:03):
Yeah. There's something beautiful about ... I mean I guess it all ends up being a matter of perspective, right? Because if you have sort of that singular vision like this is what I'm here to do, then what to someone else would feel like a setback, doesn't really feel like ... It's just like oh, I'm just going to continue. That thing didn't work, I'm just going to keep moving.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (31:20):
Yeah, I mean and that kind of ... It takes some pressure off because like I just work and every once in a while, maybe once a year, I'll make something that I think is good and that's what I'm working for but I don't know when that's going to happen. It could be really dumb idea that becomes that thing that is really important. So, yeah, it takes some pressure off because it's like okay, if this painting doesn't work or if this painting isn't as good as the others or if this painting doesn't inspire me like all the others do, that's fine because that's just one painting I'm going to make. I'm going to make another one and I'm going to make another one after that and this is ... I'm going to do this for the rest of my life. So it's like … or as long as I'm able. Already my knees are beginning to hurt and stuff.
R. Alan Brooks (32:03):
Well, I tell a lot of people this thing about the way that I deal with, I guess, rejection, because it doesn't even feel like rejection. It's because I'm doing a whole bunch of things. So if I'm working on say like six projects and they're all moving forward and then one of them has a stumble, like I sent something to an editor and they have like something bad to say. So? Because I'm still making stuff.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (32:30):
Yeah, and like I get rejected for like residencies or awards and stuff too but it's like all right, well, I'm like that's not my fault. Yeah, so, I don't know.
R. Alan Brooks (32:44):
But you were talking the fears that come up. So, for me, I don't feel any fear until I'm done and then when it's time to like present it to the world, I have like a little insecurity and it happens, I know it's there, I still do it.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (32:57):
R. Alan Brooks (32:58):
So, for me, it's just like I just acknowledge it and move on.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (33:03):
R. Alan Brooks (33:05):
How is it for you?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (33:06):
I think for me, in terms of fear, like fear in what I'm making or fear of like ... Which fear? Because there are many different fears.
R. Alan Brooks (33:14):
Yes. I think the fear of ... Well, first of all, I'm open to whichever one you want to talk about but I think just the fear that comes up in our artistic practice because is there any fear that would potentially stop you from going forward or sharing or finishing?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (33:33):
I mean I think that the ... And it's something that I try to confront in the studio but I want the paintings to have like a really almost insane vibrational energy and there's a fear that I'm acquiescing to like the tastes of others, like that I would like to make paintings that are so beautiful that they're terrifying and I don't think I'm there yet. But I guess the fear for me, especially now that I'm beginning to make money off of it, I don't want to just make things to make money. I don't want to make things just that other people like, or that like if everybody likes it, then I think that maybe I have dumbed it down too far. Like I would like there to be ... For some people to be like, no, that's not what I need to look at. I'm like yeah, I think it is what you need to look at. That's the thing that you need to look at.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (34:28):
Yeah, and in terms ... What was the second part? Fear of ...
R. Alan Brooks (34:33):
Well, I don't know, I don’t listen to myself.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (34:34):
R. Alan Brooks (34:38):
Well, we were talking about like things that stop an artist, right?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (34:40):
Right. Oh no, you were talking about the fear like before ... Like at the end of the project.
R. Alan Brooks (34:45):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (34:47):
At that point, I'm just eager. Like I think all the fear like is kind of when I'm making it, if it's good enough, that sort of stuff but when it’s time to actually have the exhibition ... I've been doing this since I was a kid, I sit in my car and I put like the seat all the way back, right? And I have a Red Bull because I know that I will be talking to a lot of folks and I listen to ... Have you ever seen the movie, Koyaanisqatsi?
R. Alan Brooks (35:15):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (35:17):
It's this crazy movie. It's like this visual collage.
R. Alan Brooks (35:19):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (35:20):
But the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi is amazing and I've loved it since I was a kid. I think the first time I saw that movie was when I was like 15 and I just listen to the whole soundtrack in my car for like 40 minutes before I actually go into the exhibition. I get there early and I'm just sitting there and dude, that music just like pumps me up so hard that by the time I'm ready to leave the car, I'm like let's do this. Like I'm the artist.
R. Alan Brooks (35:44):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (35:44):
Yeah, and you got to pump yourself up because it's scary, man. It's scary out there.
R. Alan Brooks (35:49):
Right. I want to make sure that we're getting the name of that movie for people who are listening. Can you say it again?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (35:54):
R. Alan Brooks (35:55):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (35:56):
R. Alan Brooks (35:56):
Okay, right on. Yeah, so well then, is it always that soundtrack or is it-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (36:01):
Yeah, it's always that soundtrack and I always ... I mean I listen to Phillip Glass all the time in the studio, so yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (36:08):
Yeah, huh. Yeah, it's interesting finding the things that motivate you and give you that like push.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (36:15):
R. Alan Brooks (36:16):
When I'm writing, I listen to drum and bass and I never listen to drum and bass. Like in my life, but the reason that I listen to it when I'm writing is because it occupies the part of my mind that would get distracted without being too distracting for me to write.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (36:31):
R. Alan Brooks (36:32):
So, I can be like ... I can zone out. I can write for like ... I can sit for 10 hours.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (36:35):
Dude, I listen to so much techno in the studio for the exact same reason.
R. Alan Brooks (36:38):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (36:39):
Yeah, because it moves me. It has the emotive qualities of like classical music but there're no lyrics. It's just like oh, I can just be ... I can just get swept away by this and there's ... Like you said, there's 10, 12, 15-hour mixes that I'm like put it on and that's what I'm doing today.
R. Alan Brooks (36:55):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (36:56):
Drum and bass is a little intense for me. I need a little bit of melody but yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (36:59):
Yeah? Yeah, I used to always go to sleep to like hip-hop, so I was like ... But yeah, yeah, anyway, and I think, yeah, just people paying attention to like identifying what motivates you, what hypes you up and then using it.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (37:15):
Yeah, for sure. Yeah, for sure.
R. Alan Brooks (37:18):
Yeah, because I feel like people, a lot of times, they're not deliberate about their artistic practice, so they're like waiting on the muse and waiting until it hits them.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (37:26):
Yeah, I don't know, I think caffeine is a huge one.
R. Alan Brooks (37:29):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (37:30):
R. Alan Brooks (37:30):
Yeah? It does it for you?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (37:31):
Yeah. I think it's pretty critical. But yeah, you want like the best feeling is when you get in the studio and you just feel like every possibility is on the table. And every idea is a good idea and it's rare. It happens like 30% of the time that you get in the studio and you're so jazzed to be in there. Sorry, that just got picked up. So jazzed to be in there and you're just like, dude, I can make whatever I want. Like nobody's telling me what to do. I can just do whatever I want. It's pretty powerful. It's pretty profound.
R. Alan Brooks (38:04):
All right, so you were talking about where you are presently, like what you're doing with stuff, like how are you hoping to grow your present artistic practice?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (38:14):
I don't know, man. I'm trying to figure that out, honestly. Yeah, I've shown here at the MCA.
R. Alan Brooks (38:20):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (38:22):
I've shown at a few other museums here in town. I have an exhibition every couple of years in Denver but at a certain point, it feels like you're just kind of spinning your wheels, and I need to figure out how to break that cycle and continue to get pushed. I love Denver. I grew up here and I came back here to help contribute but I feel like I kind of have and yeah, I'm actually currently trying to figure out what that next step is.
R. Alan Brooks (38:52):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (38:52):
R. Alan Brooks (38:53):
So, such a process like all of it.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (38:55):
Always, dude, always.
R. Alan Brooks (38:56):
All right, so you meet a young version of yourself, what kind of advice do you give?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (39:04):
Don't get hung up on the girls, man. Keep working. [laughter]
R. Alan Brooks (39:11):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (39:12):
Yeah. Yeah, I feel like when I was younger, I spent years heartbroken and it led to some good art and I probably wouldn't be the artist I am today if I hadn't passed through those experiences, but yeah, the art will see you through, man.
R. Alan Brooks (39:28):
That's a real thing. Like I've known people who believed that they could only create when they're hurt and that is a place to create from but to be like perpetually trying to create from that place, I don't think it's a good way to live.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (39:42):
No, no, certainly. I mean I totally understand that because I've been there but it's not the healthiest way. I met someone and they were talking about like how ... They were saying, I don't know if I believe this but this is what they said, they said that all art comes from anger but the best art comes from anger at the art. So like the anger that the art isn't the thing that's supposed to be yet and that's what drives you because I feel like there is like an infinite wellspring of anger at the state of the world but like wailing at the moon isn't going to do it. So, I think it's important to kind of like focus the anger into something that is beautiful and productive. Yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (40:31):
I was thinking through some of the things we talked at the beginning because it felt like activism and art go together in your mind but as we've talked about it, it seems less so. Am I misreading that?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (40:42):
No. I don't think you are. I think … I am a tremendously political person and I have very, very deeply heartfelt political beliefs about the state of the world. I'm anti-war. I'm anti-interventionalism. I'm anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism. I believe that everybody in the world should be allowed to live in human dignity and not feel less than. I think that love, that belief in human dignity comes through the work, that the work has a certain pathos that's about the people who are struggling or the people who are suffering. But in terms of activism, I don't think ... For me, it's difficult because I don't have ... Like I'm not ... I'm biracial, so there's like obviously like a conflict there like not sure which one I am or which ... And that changes within the moments but it's ... In terms of activism, I think that's the important thing.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (41:54):
It's about like trying to contain how complicated it all is, like it's really popular right now like something happens and you go on Instagram and the next week, there's like 20 paintings about it. And for me, those paintings only exist about those moments where I'm trying to make artwork that 100 years from now, people will look at it and be like oh, dang, that still resonates. That it's not topical in that way that I think that activism often is. It's about something timeless that me as a painter isn't so different from somebody 100 years ago who's a painter, 200 years ago who's a painter. There's this kind of timeless quality of trying to capture and express something that I like. Yeah, there's this ... Federico García Lorca who, I think he wrote a book called In Search of Duende and it was years ago that I read this but he describes duende ... He was specifically talking about like flamenco dancing versus like this type of singing that was much more guttural and like raw that was happening in Spain at the time.
R. Alan Brooks (42:57):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (42:57):
But he was talking about duende in terms of like that duende's like a spirit that like screams across the centuries. It's something that's like guttural and human but human at its very core that I really love. I love like the universal human experience. But yeah, in terms of like activism, I am a Latin American artist. I'm proud to be a Latin American artist. But Latin American because like people aren't sure which category to put me in and it's like I said, I'm both, dude.
R. Alan Brooks (43:31):
Right, well, I asked that question because I've talked with people who fully believe that all of their art should be like motivating people to do something better but then other people who believe that their art should be an escape like that allows people to disengage from some of the things that are oppressing them or hurting them and stuff like that and then there are people just in different ... They fall in different places in between that. It's cool to hear your perspective.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (43:58):
Yeah, no, I mean I just bring that stuff up because people, when they find out that my last name ends in a Z, they're like well, is this about like the Aztecs or something? I'm like, dude, I ain't Aztec, I grew up in Denver.
R. Alan Brooks (44:09):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (44:09):
I grew up watching anime and like Ghost in the Shell and I think it's a little bit more complicated than those kind of reductionist ideas and in terms of whether my art is escape, I wouldn't want to escape in one of my paintings. My paintings are kind of complicated but I think that the important thing is, yeah, that there's something going on in these paintings that is beyond comprehension and I like that people have to get into that space of trying to figure it out.
R. Alan Brooks (44:36):
There's something really beautiful, you were talking about just ... I'm rephrasing it but just capturing parts of the human condition, things that are timeless, like I just want to note that I like that. I'm glad that I asked that question. I'm glad you answered that.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (44:52):
Well, have you ever been to Paris?
R. Alan Brooks (44:54):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (44:55):
Okay, so if you go to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa's there and there's like a crowd of 50 people and they're all trying to take a photo in front of the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is like this big. It’s like an 8.5 x 11 or something.
R. Alan Brooks (45:05):
I've heard people say that, yeah.
Diego Rodriguez Warner (45:06):
Yeah, it's small and it's beautiful. Like Leonardo da Vinci is a great painter.
R. Alan Brooks (45:10):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (45:10):
But like right across the Mona Lisa facing it is this painting called Wrath of the Medusa and it is this painting of a shipwreck and there's like ... There're bodies on the shipwreck and these people are like waving at a ship that you can see on the horizon and this painting, it's massive and it is so powerful and so beautiful and it like kind of encapsulates like the struggle for life and the struggle to keep going and nobody's looking at it because the Mona Lisa's over there but it's this painting that I think has ... It reminds me of like comic book art. It is like there's a timeless thing, a timeless like pathos that I really love that is ineffable and it's hard to put your finger on it but when I get there, it's like that's the moment of discovery that I'm going ... That I'm working for.
R. Alan Brooks (45:59):
Right on, man. If people want to follow you and stuff online, where would they go?
Diego Rodriguez Warner (46:05):
I'm on Instagram @boombangarang.
R. Alan Brooks (46:09):
Okay, got it. Do you want to spell that out for people to ...
Diego Rodriguez Warner (46:11):
Uh, at ... What's that symbol called?
R. Alan Brooks (46:15):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (46:15):
R. Alan Brooks (46:16):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (46:16):
I think there's actually a name for it though. All right, nevermind. It's B-O-O-M-B-A-N-G-A-R-A-N-G, boombangarang. It's mostly pictures of my dog though.
R. Alan Brooks (46:29):
That’s a kind of perk. Hey, thank you for taking a minute to-
Diego Rodriguez Warner (46:31):
Yeah, of course, man. This was super fun.
R. Alan Brooks (46:33):
Diego Rodriguez Warner (46:34):
R. Alan Brooks (46:38):
Thank you to today's guest, Diego Rodriguez Warner. Visit mcadenver.org/podcasts to learn more about his work. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe for more and leave a review. It really helps us out. Check out MCA Denver on YouTube and subscribe there too for behind-the-scenes clips that don't make it in the episode. How Art is Born is hosted by me, R. Alan Brooks. Cheyenne Michaels is our producer and editor. Courtney Law is our executive producer. How Art is Born is a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.