This article is published concurrently with the Spring of Latino Art and the Latino Art Now! (LAN) national biennial conference and related programming taking place in Houston during the springtime of 2019.
Gerardo Rosales’ current exhibition Looking for a Hero or Whips, Whims and Wigs and Gio Ponti is just an Excuse follows his artist residency at the Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston.
Lauren Moya Ford: Your bio says that you started as a self-taught artist in Venezuela before studying art in Caracas and later in London. What was your initial entry point into art making? How do your roots impact the work you do today?
Gerardo Rosales: I grew up in San Cristóbal, [in the] Táchira state which is at the foothills of the Andes in Venezuela. This is an area abounded with beautiful natural surroundings and rich in popular traditions and folk art. I was fascinated with the artwork produced by the local folk artists because of the rich colors, patterns and the strong sense of community. Inspired by these works I began producing paintings and ceramics that showed the nature and everyday life of the city.
While studying for a degree in computer science I realized that that… my stronger interest was in art. I applied for and was successful in being admitted to the Armando Reveron Institute in Caracas to study for a B.A in Fine Arts, and from there my formal art education and career began. My experience in the art schools in Caracas and London provided me with the intellectual and technical skills that have impacted favorably on my art practice. However, I still remain connected to my early self-taught style.
LMF: You moved to Houston 2000, and have been living and working there for nearly 20 years. It’s always complicated as an immigrant to watch your homeland from afar, but Venezuela is in a drastically different situation than when you left it nearly 20 years ago. Does this distance and discord factor into the work you made for the show?
GR: My original idea that generated this show was to expose issues of social inequalities linked to poor education, gender, class and race faced by the economically disadvantaged rural population in Venezuela that moved to the cities looking for a better life. I saw in these migrant workers a vulnerability to be abused and exploited. Being in Houston for all this time has allowed me to reflect on these issues and to conclude that this is not only a Venezuelan problem but it is present across the whole of Latin America and other countries that have a post-colonial history. I decided to focus my attention on the immigrants coming to USA from Latin America looking for a better life, but in many cases still facing the same issues and struggles.
LMF: In her perceptive essay about this exhibition, Laura August notes that your career in Houston has been decidedly not as “a Venezuelan kinetic/chromatic/abstract modernist like those Houston happily celebrates,” naming Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto, Alejandro Otero, and Gego as examples. Does that recognition factor in to your experience as a Venezuelan artist in Houston? What’s it like to forge a different path?
GR: Even though I respect and celebrate the legacy of the artists you mention, I didn’t feel connected to their style as a reference to my art. They belong to a different generation and produced their work during a time that Venezuela was experiencing a transformation connected to the idea of progress and modernity.
In my case I wanted to produce more socially oriented work that exposed issues of inequality. For instance, when going to the art school in Caracas in the 1990s I concentrated my work on denouncing homophobia and gender violence faced by minorities in society. As a reference for my art practice I was attracted [to] and inspired by objects of popular culture — for instance piñatas, and the spontaneous bricolage common on the dashboards of public buses. I was attracted by the random composition of these objects which I believed would communicate my message more effectively.
LMF: Your work is infused with a sharp sense of humor and a deep pathos. We see fantastical creatures flying and crying; there’s a tension between narration and fantasy, describing and dreaming. As August puts its, the work is “bright and unnerving.” Can you tell us more about the stories or feelings that drive the work?
GR: Through my work I tell stories about my desires and anguish. In the process of generating the ideas for an art project, I select objects and media that facilitate communication of the subject matter. During the production of the artwork there is an intuitive journey that directs the decision making. My work uses as a source of reference everyday objects such as wallpaper, wrapping paper, children’s books, the imagery of cartoon drawings, toy models… . I like the ornamental aspects of these items, which help me to infiltrate messages that mix conflict with playfulness. My intention is to exaggerate reality with irony.
LMF: The show also covers a surprising and exciting mix of media that includes large canvases, painted domestic laborers’ uniforms, and gussied-up mops. What inspired your move from (or between) painting on stretched canvas to working on this very particular type of clothing? And what brought you to making these vibrant, talisman-like mops?
GR: I use a multidisciplinary approach to provide a range of opportunities for the viewer to engage with my work and ideas. With the transformed mop heads I want to open a dialogue concerning issues of power struggles between the under-privileged and the privileged in society. I appropriated tools used by domestic workers by changing their appearance and purpose. My intention with the mops is to evoke the intricate designs of the wigs used during the times of Marie Antoinette — the last queen of France before the French Revolution. I embellished the mops with the same care and treatment given by a stylist in a beauty parlor.
In the case of the altered domestic laborers’ uniforms, I highlight issues of oppression, social and class disadvantages. The work that connects the pieces in my installation is the painting Metallic Tears, whose emphasis is a girl sitting on a blue horse. Through her I suggest the idea of nostalgia, homesickness and abandonment. Cunaguaro and Cosmic Angel are paintings that offer an escape route from the daily routine of my protagonists. These nocturnal compositions are constellations that reveal symbols and imagery idiosyncratic to my work.
LMF: And, finally, why is Gio Ponti just an excuse? 🙂
GR: In the late 1950s the Plancharts, a wealthy Venezuelan family, commissioned the Italian architect Gio Ponti to design a house to be built in Caracas. Ponti’s design went beyond just the house and included all the furnishings and fittings, from the silverware and furniture down to the toilet bowl. The house which is known as “Villa Planchart” remains today and is an icon of modernity.
After seeing the documentary El Cerrito, which tells the story of this house, I imagined being commissioned by the Planchart family to design their domestic workers’ uniforms based on the geometric abstraction style of Gio Ponti. Through these uniforms I attempt to highlight deep socioeconomic inequalities by a sector of the population forgotten by the idea of progress and modernity in Venezuela.
Living in the U.S. for almost 20 years I see similar conditions for the underprivileged immigrants that come [here] looking for a better life, but find themselves facing similar conditions of social and economic exclusion.
Finally: Gio Ponti is just an excuse to expose these issues!
On view at the Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston until May 29, 2019.
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Lauren Moya Ford is an artist and writer based in Madrid.