Altered Images: Ricardo Rodríguez Steps Out of the Frame

Ricardo Rodriguez Representación Topográfica
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Representación Topográfica."

Sometimes the suggestions an image incites are more powerful than the image alone.

With suggestion comes intrigue. There’s a natural curiosity about the artist who propelled those suggestions in the images you see speeding across your cerebral hemispheres. It’s only two dimensions -- maybe three, if you’re lucky. How could they know it would affect you the way that it does?

Artist and teacher Ricardo Rodríguez, a fixture in the Ventura arts scene, knows the toil it takes to get to the point of developing those suggestions. Some of the most striking examples of his art speak directly to the strange framework that connects the heart and the mind. In "Re-Frame," the sight of an empty picture frame placed atop perfectly-tilled farmland summons up thoughts of promise and potential. In "Trapped Between," raw black rope wends its way through white blocks placed carefully around a gallery -- provocative in its invitation, challenging the viewer to not only touch but re-touch as well. In "Tissue," what appear to be human materials connect themselves directly from the image to the imagination, moving in a ballet of subtle and challenging creativity. Rodríguez’s work is visceral yet minimal, evoking the greatest of emotions from the barest turn of the eye as it moves across the artwork.

Ricardo Rodriguez, Re-frame
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Re-Frame."

With this in mind, does his work fit into the larger Ventura County arts scene -- or is he out there on his own? “I’ve lived in Ventura for six years,” Rodríguez explains, adding, “And I’m part of the Bell Arts Factory off Ventura Avenue. I was a board member there, and I’ve run the Tool Room Gallery and I’ve curated the Bell Arts house studio there. So I’ve worked as an artist and also a curator.” There’s a sense of the past tense. What happened? “I’ve been working at a school for five years,” he says with a sigh. “I was commuting from Ventura to La Cañada Flintridge every day for three years -- 70 miles each way, about an hour-and-a-half. So I was in the car three hours a day -- and on top of that, when I came back to Ventura, I’d have to go to the gallery and work, or go to meetings.” That kind of pillar-to-post living must have been exhausting. “The driving took a lot away from my own personal work -- so I had to make the decision. I really love the community, but I had to move closer to work so I could actually produce more work of my own. I’m still active up in Ventura, even though I don’t live there; I’m really active there still from here.”

As for if he sees anyone in Ventura doing art similar to his, he’s diplomatic and expansive. “I did a collaboration in Ojai with one Ventura artist -- the ceramicist Janet Neuwalder. Her work would not be considered traditional ceramic work; it’s more like a conceptual approach to the medium. There’s a group of artists up here that’s a younger generation that are exploring the medium in new ways; more conceptual.” As for the current state of the arts in the county, he enthuses, “Definitely, in Ventura, I think it’s an arts community that’s growing every year. I’ve been really impressed. When I got there in 2008, I think it was, there was a big art community because it was easy-to-find; it wasn’t hard.”

How did he start out when he first arrived? The answer lay at the nascent Bell Arts Factory, a former mattress factory at the east end of town. “When I started out at the Bell Arts Factory, the two-room gallery that was there wasn’t running -- basically, it was just used as storage. So, I offered, said I’d be willing to run the gallery; I fixed it up and they gave me the thumbs-up.” How were his efforts received? “It was a matter of less than a year and that gallery was already being noticed by a lot of people in Ventura. I tried to showcase artists that were more contemporary -- some traditional media, but people who used them in a different way and would somehow enhance the Ventura community. I think now, especially with the ArtWalk [that was run by the city], now the artists own it themselves.”  

When asked about the difference between the Ventura and Los Angeles arts scenes, Rodríguez puts everything into perspective. “It’s small, a lot smaller than L.A. -- they support each other, and the dialogue is a lot faster. More dynamic, because it’s smaller -- plus, in L.A., things get lost because there are so many art shows at the same time.”

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There are several photographs of his sculptures and installations on his website. As multidimensional as his work tends to be, the question arises: are those photographs something that complement, or complete the work? At this he is unequivocal. “The photos that you see on the website are just a documentation of the actual exhibit. "Trapped Between," itself, is mounted on a panel and I literally drilled a hole where the rope is and I put the rope from behind, coming out. They’re both contained in the same image. It’s a division between what’s real and what’s fiction.”  

Are there any other examples of this particular artistic outlook that influenced him? “The last few years I photographed wrinkled paper (for the series "Representación Topográfica") with a pinhole camera -- a wooden box, 40 by 30 inches, adding, deliberately, “By photographing photo-sensitive paper, I went to the basics of the medium -- light hitting on an object, bouncing back and being recorded.”

With minimalism -- both in its pursuit by artists and its appreciation by audiences -- there’s a lingering impulse to keep filling up space. It’s as though there’s the pressure to have to come up with an alibi -- a rationale for its very existence, because people don’t like blank space and aren’t comfortable filling in that space on their own. They want to have it filled in for them. With minimalism, it’s as though the artists needs to justify its existence more often than with any other type of art.  

Ricardo Rodriguez, Representación Topográfica
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Representación Topográfica."

Rodríguez takes these thoughts to heart and replies, “I like a lot of negative space. A lot of my work is minimalist – seeing the idea of simplicity as being something more complicated. Even the "Trapped Between" series is more minimalist -- there’s only one object and there’s only one line across the show. The thing about negative space is that it’s not really negative. If you have only 10 percent of the image filled, it’s going to be totally different if you have 80 percent or 90 percent.” It’s a situation that involves information and chaos. “Maybe you want the viewer to feel that chaos,” he says, explaining, “Even that rope in 'Trapped Between' -- I come from Puerto Rico, so I grew up near the sea and rope has meaning for us. You also think about things like slavery -- there’s a strong symbol of things between the lines there. When you go to the simplest things, and you take all the information out, you have to be more committed to choosing the right thing -- and why. Why take all the color out? Why just use paper (as in 'Representación Topográfica')? Why not use the single element that I want to talk about?”

When asked about the new series he’s working on, Rodríguez reveals, “I’m dealing specifically with topographical maps, because they have this beautiful aesthetic to them that I’m intrigued by. The last series I did ('Representación Topográfica') resembled mountains and landscapes. The new things I’m working on involve printing on transparencies; modifying the actual topographical maps mixed with real photographs of landscapes.”  

What’s involved in this process? “I’m taking all the information that is unnecessary out,” he says, elaborating, “Distilling it to see what I’m going to get at the end. There’s also the idea of the map as identity, and where you’re coming from -- that it’s a landscape that defines you, like a territory. It’s the same thing as the landscape that we’ve come up with that defines what photography is, and what it should be -- everything outside of that map cannot be drawn.”

Ricardo Rodriguez, Through
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Through."
Ricardo Rodriguez, Tissue
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Tissue."
Ricardo Rodriguez, Traces
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Traces."
Ricardo Rodriguez, Trapped Between
Ricardo Rodríguez, "Trapped Between."

Ricardo Rodríguez’s next exhibition opens May 7 at FOCA (Fellows of Contemporary Art), 970 N. Broadway, Ste. #208, in Chinatown, Los Angeles.


Top image: Ricardo Rodríguez, "Cells."


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