The transition from living as part of an ethnic majority in El Paso, Texas, to becoming part of a Hispanic minority in the Pacific Northwest has offered both a challenge and an inspiration for ceramic sculptor George Rodriguez. With a new body of work on view at Foster/White Gallery in Seattle this spring, and a lecture demonstration later in mid-March at the annual NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) conference in Kansas City, Missouri, the 33-year-old graduate of University of Texas, El Paso and the University of Washington (MFA, 2009) is clearly on a roll.
Rodriguez’s early work was characterized by large-scale, multi-figure sculptural installations, such as Instrumental Divide (2009); in subsequent years, these pieces have been joined by individual life-size figures and self-portraits like Wanderer (2011), along with various forays into table-top floral assemblages and functional tableware. Far from his West Texas roots, Rodriguez has adapted them by focusing on subjects drawn from his Chicano heritage, such as ceremonies, rituals and presentations, filtering in other inspirations gained as a result of a 10-month global travel fellowship from the UW in 2010. During that span, he visited 26 countries on three continents.
“Some of my original inspirations will continue because I’m talking about personal experiences,” the former Bonderman Travel Fellow observes, speaking from his home in the White Center neighborhood of Seattle. “For example, my mother was a seamstress, so I make dress sculptures. But now, after my trips to Bali, Taiwan and Thailand, I want to acknowledge cultures I am not a part of. I would love to show how I bring in those sensibilities to trace the difference between conquering them and honoring them.”
Although Rodriguez is still processing the Bonderman trip, there are already signs of his neo-multicultural approach. For example, in a series of tableware objects shown at Kobo Gallery in Seattle in 2011, Japanese lotus blossoms ornamented a gravy boat. Elsewhere, a Buddhist monastic top-knot became the artist’s hair-do in another self-portrait, Guardian (2014). Calavera (2014) applies skeleton “make-up” to the artist’s face, recalling Mexican Day of the Dead skulls, while also suggesting tribal face painting from New Guinea and parts of Africa. Considering his own artistic influences, Rodriguez acknowledges in particular the late Robert Arneson, godfather of West Coast figurative ceramics. “Arneson used the mold of his own head for his self-portraits, and then altered them for many other figures, like Jackson Pollock. I did a similar thing with my ‘George’ series,” he explains. “Instead of just me, I created many other Georges: George Washington, George Sand, and a Curious George.”
Ceramic with glaze
18 1⁄2″ x 15″ x 13″
Photos: courtesy Foster/White Gallery
Among the revelations from his wanderjahr was the primacy of ceramics in other countries’ artistic culture. “There is a higher consciousness about clay in Asia than in the US,” Rodriguez says. “It is everywhere. You can feel it. It is a connection point without the lower status.” At the same time, he concedes that such traditions can be unduly binding, too. “Tradition is something you need to respect; you learn it, but then move on, lift it, and alter it,” he continues. “Imagine a ceremonial object. You have it usable for, say, a procession. It could be for a smaller, everyday ceremony, not just a grand event. After all the treasures in museums that I saw, I’m more attached to the idea of ‘What’s behind the object?’”
Commenting on identity, he observes, “It’s like when I was traveling, my appearances and ethnic identity were so fluid. Because I am fluent in Spanish, I could blend into Peru. At the Trujillo Museum north of Lima, the guard spoke to me and let me see the hidden erotic [Pre-Columbian] pieces. When I was in Asia, they thought I was Filipino or something, so I went along with that.”
Besides his Foster/White exhibition, Seattle area viewers will have another chance to observe Rodriguez’s ample skills at the important group show, “Beyond Aztlán: Mexican, Chicano and Chicana Artists in the Northwest,” at Museum of Northwest Art (March 26 – June 12, 2016). Yet Rodriguez’s vision is distinct enough that it transcends its subject matter, despite its seeming wit and keen observation. “The sculptures can be like a journal,” he says. “I know humor catches people and then draws them in. I don’t want to make a joke [like Arneson], I want to make it more than a joke. I think a lot about political and social commentary when I am working, but I think there’s enough of it in other people’s work, so I don’t need to include it in mine.”
“Beneath the Surface,” a show of works by George Rodriguez, will be on view at Foster/White Gallery in Seattle, from April 6 – 30, 2016.
He will also be part of the group show, “Beyond Aztlán: Mexican & Chicana/o Artists in the Northwest,” at Museum of Northwest Art, in La Conner, WA.
March 26 – June 12, 2016
George with Flowers
Ceramic with glaze
21″ x 13″ x 16″