Rocio Rodriguez has been an active part of the Atlanta arts community for the past 25 years. Atlanta has watched her work meander between representational and non-narrative, and move everywhere in between. A private woman, Rodriguez has spent most of her long career avoiding personal spotlight. However, we convinced the Cuban native to meet with us at the High Museum to discuss her childhood, cultural influences and the Internet age.
Susannah Darrow and Laura Hennighausen: We were looking at your artist Facebook page last night and it said you had taken down your personal page; you didn’t de-friend anyone…you just closed it all down.
Rocio Rodriguez: I just deactivated my account. I feel like privacy is such a luxury now.
SD and LH: Keeping your privacy in mind, would you be willing to divulge anything about your personal background? We know you’re from Cuba.
RR: I was born in Cuba and I came to the United States in 1961, when I was nine years old. I’ve been living in Georgia, cumulatively, for about 35 years. I grew up in Athens from my teenage years through college.
SD and LH: Did you go to UGA [University of Georgia]?
RR: I went to Georgia. Then, I left after I got my MFA and started teaching at Miami University of Ohio. I taught full time there for five years and then there was an opportunity for my husband to return home—he’s also from Atlanta—so we wanted to come back home. I’ve been here since ’85.
SD and LH: Do you still [carry] influences from your childhood in Cuba? Or do you feel like you’ve been in Georgia such a long time that it is less of a factor in your work now?
RR: I’m definitely bi-cultural. I’ve been living in the United States for more than 50 years so my entire background, as far as my art is concerned, is totally American influenced. There were very personal issues I dealt with regarding that bi-cultural background back in the 80s and 90s in my work, but all that has found its place. The work is not about that [now].
SD and LH: Your last show was about the process and act of creating. Do you think [your] work is still about personal subjects? Or do you think it’s moved more into being about the work itself?
RR: It’s definitely non-narrative, aside from the fact that I’m using an abstract language. You can’t escape the personal, but it’s definitely coded, and rightly so. I’m not interested in telling a story. It’s very much what you just said, very much about the work. The work and the situations that are being set up in the work parallel a certain kind of reality that I feel that I exist in, particularly now. I grew up when there was no Internet and it was a really different kind of reality. Now you can be in three places at once, and you know things instantly. There’s this kind of layering to your life. You can be having a conversation online with somebody, you can be shopping for shoes, and you can be reading the news, all at the same time. There’s a kind of diverted attention that we experience in reality today.
The work, in a very metaphorical way, alludes to being in two places at once. It’s kind of set up where there’s a picture within a picture in this particular drawing. I don’t like to really explain it all; I kind of like to make the viewer work in looking at the work. I think when you say too much you’ve taken the experience away of looking from someone. And that’s a very valuable thing, to let them look and figure out, “why is that in the front?” “Why is that in the back?” “Why is the space different from here to here?” I guess that’s a little clue. There’s a representational space here with a floor and a wall, but here that doesn’t exist anymore. And this [mark] has kind of come into that space and become a very present thing. It’s kind of an abstract shape that exists in our space and acts like a person. In a bizarre way that’s paralleling the fluidity we have in our everyday existence today.
SD and LH: In speaking about the abstract language you use in your work, do you find yourself using the same shapes and colors to represent the same ideas?
RR: Right now there are these blocks. But I really try to push the language; I really try to push the shapes. Drawing is a very important part of my process, because that’s where I do all my thinking. So I draw the way you would make an entry in a diary. It’s my way of finding out what’s on TV today in my head, channel surfing in a way. So drawing becomes very important and in drawing I try and push different ways of expressing things in terms of the shapes. The thing about using this type of vocabulary is that it is very limited: shape, line, color, value. I’m not using representational things to get an idea across. So you really have to deal with those limitations, and I find the limitations to be confounding and totally challenging. The fact that I have to really push that and get past how I’ve already done something and the situation that I’ve set up in the drawing.
SD and LH: Growing up were you always drawn to working in the abstract?
RR: Oh, no. I was a figurative painter in college. I painted life-size figures. I can actually “draw!” [laughs]
SD and LH: Was there a moment when you started [abstracting]?
RR: In college, I was the kind of person who has to teach themselves everything. There’s knowledge that’s handed to you, and the experiential. For me, I had to go through it all. So it was really important for me to learn how to “paint,” whatever that means, and to see things and put them on a canvas; so I was a representational painter in college. I was struggling to get something to look like something on a canvas. And then I became a figurative painter—life-size, full-size figures. Then, in the 90s, the work started becoming very expressive and less specific and I wanted that. I didn’t want to be so direct and so clear. I wanted the person who was viewing the work to participate and to leave the work open ended enough to where [the viewer can] bring [their] own kind of interpretations to the painting. The work became increasingly less representational—to the point where, in the 90s, it was very minimal. Saying something as simply as possible.
My work has gone through various transformations. I have the attention [span] of a four year-old with my own work. I go through three years of hyper focus and get a body of work done, then I’m done with that and I move on. I have no desire to continue to work in a certain way. It’s like shedding a skin. After that, I try to oppose everything I’ve done before, and that’s what happened with this [current] body of work. The previous body of work was very frenetic and the canvases were full: There was a lot of movement. After that, I took everything off the table, got rid of color for an entire year and a half and these blocks started to appear which were very different from what was going on before.
For me, I go through these intense focus periods where I create a body of work and then I’m done. It’s a very uncomfortable period because I don’t know where I’m going, what I’m doing, or what I’m going to do next. It seems to be [about] the process. What’s interesting about that to me—just as a side note—is that I had a retrospective last year including work from 25 years and, in a very deep seeded way, I’m still solving the same problem. It’s the same problem I was solving 25 years ago; it’s just gone through transformations.
SD and LH: Is that a problem you can articulate or something more abstract?
RR: One thing is very clear with me, there’s a dichotomy in the work all the time. I’m not about rigid boundaries. Everything is permeable. It seems that a lot of my work has reached that kind of outlook, or point of view, from the very beginning. I’m not comfortable with solid statements or hierarchies. Everything is in a state of change. In the 90s, when the figure was disappearing from my paintings, it never [completely] disappeared. It slowly melted away into the background, but then there was this other thing appearing on the side, [indicating] these two forces were there. I think a general philosophical attitude I have about life is that nothing is fixed, [and that] translates to the work.
SD and LH: Does your multiculturalism play into that [dichotomy]?
RR: I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing. I have no explanation for it and you can psychoanalyze it to death. We all have our little stories we tell ourselves about our lives. I think from very early on, there was an in and out thing in my life. At home, we spoke Spanish and there was a different kind of cultural thing going on, then I stepped out the door and there was another kind of thing going on. It isn’t so drastic—it’s still western culture—but there is an obvious difference that was very interesting. Things weren’t just one way. I think that’s probably reflected in there a little.
SD and LH: You’ve done residencies in Italy and then Spain. Did you seek out residencies abroad to think more about that [pluralism] of being in different cultures and different areas?
RR: I like being where I have to figure things out. So the Rome residency [American Academy of Art in Rome, 1997] was an opportunity that presented itself to the southeast in ’96, and they were offering a three-month residency in Rome. They opened it up to the eight southern states and it went on for three years. I was the first year. I was awarded that and I lived at the [American Academy of Art in Rome] for 3 months.
SD and LH: Was that residency in Rome through the Rome Prize?
RR: It was the same jury but it was a focused three-month residency. It was an amazing experience because you live at the academy and you have this studio that looks like you died and went to heaven. It’s like being at an art country club. I tried to learn Italian and I tried to really immerse myself in being in Italy. It’s not such a big leap for me, I speak Spanish…but back to your question, yes—
To me, travel is totally essential, especially when I’ve lived in a place for a long time like I have here in Atlanta. I really enjoy being challenged in seeing and really experiencing other cultures and not always being in the same place. Then I went to Spain for a month, and that was interesting because it was in a little town in the middle of nowhere [Fundación Valparaiso, 2003]. It was a totally different experience than Rome. It was like being in a convent actually, but in a good way. It was very meditative. No phone, no computer, no nothing.
SD and LH: Did you feel like your work was influenced by being really immersed in the culture?
RR: I went to Rome at the right time. I was finished with the work I’d been doing for [the prior] six to eight years. When I went to Rome it was a clean slate. What was interesting about the Rome experience was [that] I reconnected with where I came from; [living] in Cuba as a child, all the houses had tiles on the floors and on the walls, and there was this explosion of color. When I went to Rome, I spent a lot of time looking at tiles on the floors; it was like reconnecting to some past. My body of work involved a lot of ornamentation and also dealing with the idea of beauty—making pretty paintings on purpose. It was a break from the work I was doing before, which was very heavy emotionally. So that’s what happened in Rome.
SD and LH: So do you still have family in Cuba?
RR: No. I could probably go back if I went with some art group but I really don’t want to do that kind of trip. I want to go with my husband, and deal with that past. I’m not really interested in going with a group. I definitely want to go back. I go on Google and look at my house. I’m sure it’s the same picture that’s been up there for seven years… See that’s another thing about the Internet, you’re there but you’re not there. That’s what’s strange about that whole reality.
SD and LH: It doesn’t just stop when you leave. [When you move] it always seems like nothing changes—it’s really jarring. But the aesthetics of the house have changed and the people in it. It seems very strange.
RR: Also the size thing. You probably remember it much larger.
SD and LH: Does teaching influence your work? You’ve taught at SCAD and at Miami University in Ohio.
RR: And Georgia State and ACA [Atlanta College of Art].
I’m [currently] teaching part time; I don’t teach full-time, so it’s a little break. I get out of my own head and it’s enjoyable that way, to not be thinking about “me, me, me” and “the work, the work, the work.” I do a lot of research for my students. If I encounter a particular problem that a student has in class I try and find things that [he/she] can look at or read about to help them. In that sense, I’m educating myself at the same time.
I do enjoy some of the students very much. They allow me to have a sense of humor about making art, which I usually don’t have in my studio. Selfishly, a really important part of teaching for me is being around people who are not my age. That for me becomes very interesting. Keeps me on my toes.
SD and LH: What is your spirit animal?
RR: If I had to pick one it would be a hawk. I don’t know what it is about them, they fly really high and they see everything. I know they’re predators. I’m not really very predatory personally! I love the freedom I see in them. I love the flight. I connect with that flight. There are a lot of hawks in my neighborhood; they appear a lot.
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