Roswell Artist-in-Residence exhibit opening and lecture: George Rodart
By Christina Stock
Roswell Artist-in-Residence George Rodart will have his opening and lecture July 19 at 5:30 p.m., followed by a reception at 6 p.m. in the Marshall and Winston Gallery of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, 1011 N. Richardson Ave.
Rodart’s exhibition of 11 large-scale paintings explore the liminal zone between abstraction and representation.
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It is always difficult to describe a visual artist with the written word, but in the case of Rodart, it is his background that makes it difficult to choose what to let readers know about the RAiR artist and what to let visitors to his exhibit and lecture learn by themselves.
When I visited him in his studio, construction workers were in the midst of doing some repair on his apartment. He said he had adapted to New Mexico by getting up and working on his art at 4 a.m. and when the heat of summer is at its fiercest, stopping at 2 p.m., just as these workers do.
Rodart’s studio is in an artistic (dis-)order, with paint lined up in repurposed tubs, paper cutouts laying on a neat pile, canvases lined up and photos of his grandchildren pinned on the wall. He doesn’t sit still, though he is a septuagenarian, he looks decades younger. Only when he finished hanging three of his huge canvases on the wall, he sits down, “Now it looks like an artist lives here,” he said. “I have a funny story. I am kind of the odd man out of this group (at RAiR). I am an invitational of Don Anderson. I was showing my work at his 98th birthday party and so he sent me an invitation.”
Rodart grew up in the midst of the golden age of abstract impressionists and pop art, which would form his future and put in the seed to continuously reinventing himself while staying true to his art.
Talking to the artist, it is obvious that he is very open about his passion, life and his artistic media. His ability to share, Rodart said, comes from his family and background, which has a direct connection to New Mexico, though he has lived most of his life in California and New York City.
“My father is the son of a musician, they lived just outside of Mexico City, which I have never seen and I probably never will,” he said. “But they came to New Mexico, to a little town on the other side of Albuquerque, called Rodarte. There weren’t a lot of Rodartes in the western hemisphere. My grandfather was Spanish and I have Basque roots.”
At one point his family moved to California. “I grew up in Pasadena, California, in a middle-class neighborhood. We were the first Latinos on the block. I didn’t understand anything about races when I was a boy. My mother sang opera, I studied music. My mother came from Italy when she was only four. There were economic difficulties in Italy, so they sent the children over. She lived with an Irish uncle of all things. He was in the restaurant business.”
As it is often in first generation families, Rodart’s family spoke only English at home.
Rodart said, when he learned about RAiR and about its involvement in art education for the children in town, it struck a personal note. As a young boy, he said his mother took him to the Pasadena Art Museum, only six blocks away from where he lived, and signed him up for painting lessons at age 10.
“Fifty years later, I realized I was being taught by fledgeling abstract impressionists, who worked for the museum,” Rodart said. “Because of this museum, I got my exposure to art. Pasadena also had an art faire every year in which I participated as a teenager, but that exposure I had at the age of 10 laid the foundation. From that point on, I developed a fairly elaborate relationship with the museum; I knew all the ladies who worked in there. I wasn’t a member, but they let me in. So I attended the (Marcel) Duchamp retrospective (1963). I didn’t even know who Duchamp was, I was maybe 20 at the time.”
Rodart’s father had become an engineer and was guiding his son to get into a scientific field, so he studied engineering as well, working for early computer companies and becoming an information technology expert.
“I wasn’t good at the technical training, but I was good at drawing,” Rodart said. “I worked for a couple of smaller companies. One of them had me working on a lunar project — I designed a little part that was part of the pack of the man who walked on the moon. So, I had all this technological training and then basically kind of decided, ‘enough.’”
He was accepted at the University of California Los Angeles where he got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and then his Master of Fine Arts. At that time, nobody taught marketing or any business aspects connected to the arts, so he started a group to help each other.
“A lot of us lived in Venice, California at the time. I had a studio for $100 a month. Today, that studio rents for $20,000. So, we had this little group. We continued the things we did at school. We shared credits of our work; we taught each other how to create a resume and slides. I worked as a carpenter in ‘75, I was having a hard time to get anybody to pay attention to my work.”
Rodart moved to New York City. “It was rough in ‘75, but not by ‘83, unless if you went out to the Bronx. The first time I went to New York City, I stayed with a friend on the floor, typical kind of stuff you did when you were young. We would be walking to East Village and turned around to walk back, it was real creepy. It was still burned out in a lot of places.
“I did the art thing for a while, the relocation from California to New York (City) was more difficult than I thought it would be,” Rodart said. “It takes a long time to get used to a new city. The second thing was, I was trying to raise a family, I was into being a responsible father.”
Rodart withdrew from the exhibition scene, though he continued making art. The majority of art he was creating was investigative and exploring the foundations of painting.
While not being active in the art world because of his family, Rodart joined group exhibitions all over the country, including the 1977 Six from California exhibit at the Dorothy Rosenthal Gallery in Chicago, Illinois; in 1981 Southern California Drawings at the Joseloff Gallery, University of Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut; 1982 became a very active year and in 1983, Rodart received the sought-after Guggenheim Fellowship for Painting. From here on, a stable art career kept him in the city.
Fast forward to 2015 when a health scare forced Rodart to address his mortality. While other successful artists see their lifetime of work completed at 70, Rodart looked at his work and started to reinvent himself anew. He wanted to reach higher, he said, to start a new style, not to repeat outdated art that no longer had a connection to its purpose.
“I imagined myself in this big control room, identifying all this stuff around me,” Rodart said. “I got to thinking, how do we do this? How do we recognize stuff? How do we see things.” Rodart became fascinated with the progression of artificial intelligence that shows how the learning process functions. He was also fascinated with cultural aspects on how people literally see art.
In 2016, Rodart completed the first 100 paintings from this series. Then he began planning the next stage.
Rodart’s style changed from him finding inspiration and finding objects and figures in painting, to using cut-out forms that he arranges and re-arranges until recognition, adding to this, he switched in Roswell from oil paint to acrylics, experimenting during his time as RAiR with different structures. “This would not work with oil,” he said.
Following his move to New Mexico, Rodart’s approach became less traditional, more graphic and closer to a billboard than a painting. This is due to the space he has at the RAiR compound. “This is the biggest and nicest studio I ever had,” he said. While the paintings he had started in New York City were on a smaller scale, he started creating large collages on canvas that he himself stretched and primed, adding then the cut-outs until he recognizes an object or figure before painting. The results are 11 large pieces of art for the upcoming exhibit.
“I didn’t really understand at the beginning what was happening,” Rodart said. “I knew what I was doing while I was working, between things that are obviously drawn to random shapes — I am looking for the inner point between what we consider to be abstract and what we consider to be representational. If I think about painting, I think all painting is abstract. Because what you are doing is taking something from the outside world and codifying it on a surface.
“I am looking at the information content in it. A photo realist has a high degree of informational content. He makes it conform to a photo. It takes something like Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” painting (which, instead of depicting the Spanish Civil War directly, shows one person suffering). It is one of the most extraordinary paintings ever painted in my opinion. When you look at the painting and don’t see a specific person, but you get this incredible angst, this incredible sadness that comes from the intensity of the image. In-between representation and abstraction, it’s all abstraction, but it is about the degrees of correspondence about the thing you are thinking about on the outside. A photographic image is what we think we see, but we don’t. We know there are other things, like the back (of a person or object). I don’t know exactly, you fill in the image. You don’t worry most of the time, you don’t need to.
“The degree of correspondence varies all along, and for me, there is a place in the middle,” Rodart said. “I am interested in that borderline. If you find something literal, I do that, but that is something that just happens, I let the work happen. These things are very concrete. If you do a lot of brush, then people can see a lot, like looking at figures in the clouds, which is sort of what I am doing, except if they know they can get away with that, they don’t have to commit to thinking about it.”
These subjective views fascinate Rodart and where those views come from, it can be cultural or come from life experience.
Rodart, however, does want the onlooker to find their own view of his art, that’s why he rarely gives his work titles, but rather numbers to identify and to catalogue. He does permit the buyer after purchase to name the art.
“Painting has a long history and my recent interest has to do with what I discovered about how we attribute meaning to things, how we attribute recognition, and I use the word ‘association’ a lot when I talk about these things. I make something until I have some kind of association with it, it kind of looks like a figure. I have a lot of things where I play around with some shape. I am not trying to say you are supposed to see that, but if you do, it’s great,” Rodart said.
The public has until Sept. 8 to see Rodart’s exhibit. He hopes and wishes to remain in Roswell, feeling an affinity with the open landscape, which is so different to the skyscrapers of New York City. His staying, however, will depend on the success of his plans to bring more attention to Roswell’s art scene and its possibilities.
“The thing is, they should never underestimate the importance of having the two museums, the miniature museum and the music events,” Rodart said. “Those cultural things are a huge draw to relocating businesses. It’s pretty extraordinary and a pretty extraordinary place. That’s what I am thinking about Roswell.”
For more information, visit roswellmuseum.org or call 575-624-6744.