Daniel Rios Rodriguez’s new solo exhibition, “Bruisers,” at San Antonio’s Artpace, starts in the hallway, where a small drawing of a jumble of eyes hangs across from a spiky black sun covered in pyramidal chunks of wood. The two pieces recall the essentials of looking — sight and light. But they also represent the curious license that the artist takes with nature. In Rodriguez’s world, eyes resemble spiders or even hills, and his tire-colored sun evokes night more than day.
The hallway serves as an introductory jolt, reminding us that Rodriguez’s images are never pinned down too tightly.
Rodriguez is invested in the possibilities that unconventional materials bring to his painting. Stones, marbles, ropes, glass, nails, dried plants, and even Mardi Gras beads animate the agitated surfaces of his recent work. In “Bruisers,” many paintings still feature the artist’s signature rope and stones, but the works are quieter, less cluttered.
Here Rodriguez alternates between geometric designs on round clay dishes and looser forms inside of zigzagged cement frames or glossy white wood. The terracotta trays and smiling ceramic sun are surprising substrates, though still based in nature — clay is made of earth, after all. And they recall Texas patios and Mexican restaurants, where they are so common that we almost forget their artisanal and ethnic connotations. With them, Rodriguez quietly injects an undercurrent of identity, nostalgia, and craftsmanship into his show.
The ceramics signal a new direction for the artist, as do the wires, ropes, and hose that Rodriguez has twisted into free-standing, dusty-looking serpent sculptures. Studded with rusty fixtures, hunks of concrete, rocks, and crystals, the “Snake Sketches” conjure associations with the Aztecs’ Coatlicue, the snake of Eden, as well as the plain old Texas garden snake. Clustered together on a table in the center of the room, the snakes also reminded me simultaneously of Alexander Calder’s circus figures and a Pentecostal snake pit. And though the pieces exist outside of Rodriguez’s painted surfaces, the sculpture’s title reminds us that they are ‘sketches’ — provisional drawings in three dimensions.
After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Yale, Rodriguez returned to his hometown of San Antonio, where he still lives. His work has been shown widely, with recent solo exhibitions at Lulu (Mexico City, 2016), Nicelle Beauchene Gallery (New York City, 2017), and Kerlin Gallery (Dublin, 2018). But “Bruisiers” is Rodriguez’s first major show in San Antonio.
In a 2015 artist talk at the McNay Museum, Rodriguez named Phillip Guston, Elizabeth Murray, and Carroll Dunham as key influences. I also see traces of Latin American artists like Rufino Tamayo, Xul Solar, and Tarsila do Amaral in the artist’s paint application, spacial quirkiness, and jewel tones.
Closer to home, the late eccentric painter Forrest Bess also built his own frames, had a history in San Antonio, and made paintings guided by semi-abstract, semi-figurative visions. Like Bess, energy seems to radiate from Rodriguez’s talisman-like paintings. Yet Rodriguez’s sacred hearts, chalices, snakes, and nails reference Spanish American art and Mexican American Catholicism. The artist’s process sounds like a rite itself — he burns, throws, and repaints the pieces, putting them through transformation, and ultimately, transfiguration. If Rodriguez is anything like Bess, he wants painting to do something more, even if it’s just for himself.
But perhaps Rodriguez’s main influence is Texas itself — its landscape is embodied by the wood, stones, ropes, and wire that the artist embeds into his works. When I left the exhibition I couldn’t stop thinking that the work looked like it came from the West Texas desert and also from someone’s garage, and that’s why I liked it. That mixture of mystical nature with the hand and the home is core to Rodriguez’s work, and it’s what continues to draw viewers in.
“Bruisers” is on view through August 18, 2019, at Artpace in San Antonio.