Francisco Rodríguez: Snow On The Burning Plain
A text by Christian Viveros-Fauné
What to paint? The permanent problem facing every painter who confronts a blank canvas, the question constitutes a spur for certain artists to construct entire universes of shape, color and meaning. Why paint this thing or that object? What form, feeling, image or idea merit recording and how?
In the case of Francisco Rodríguez, painting is not just a way of seeing or thinking, but—more radically still—a way to be seen thinking and seeing out loud. The effort requires, of course, the construction of an eloquent image or narrative archive. That compelling archive, or imaginaire, constitutes the wellspring of what we have come to refer to as the artist’s creative vision.
In Rodríguez’s case, his imaginaire clings to the mind like heavy woolens and wet winter air. It consists of firmly outlined figures that populate darkened or gray-toned landscapes: men in shadows, packs of dogs with red eyes and crows that occupy the central space of a canvas. It also prominently features portraits of lean male characters, some with cigarettes dangling from thin lips, others sporting broad impudent grins or wide brimmed hats of the sort seen in period images of Chilean gauchos or in Pablo Picasso’s early bohemian pictures, especially his portraits of Carles Casagemas, the legendary artist suicide.
Rodríguez’s imagery, in fact, calls up an array of bohemian antecedents: the Pre-Raphaelites (especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of louche entertainments, the aforementioned Picasso of the Blue and Rose periods (note Rodriguez’s use of diamond checkered patterns, reminiscent of the Spaniard’s saltimbanques), the Viennese Secession (particularly Egon Schiele) and, skipping forward almost a century, the stylized, mischievous and oneiric figures of artists as varied as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Wojnarowicz and Marcel Dzama. What they all have in common with the young Chilean-born, London-based artist is simple: they each sought to dovetail a hardscrabble, insubordinate view of city life with what Charles Baudelaire famously urbanely called “a way of feeling.”
Rodríguez, though, invokes a dark difference. If his pictures are romantic, they convey emotion in a way that is freighted with oblique references to still other far-flung sources: among these are the 1980s manga comic Akira, Irvine Welsh’s gritty Glasgow novels, Pedro Almodovar’s Pepi, Lucy y Bom, the lyrics of The Clientele’s Losing Haringey and the general pall cast over the artist’s native country by several decades of dictatorship, as reflected, say, in the 2008 Chilean film Tony Manero. Then there’s the painter’s choice for the title of his first London gallery exhibition. Called “The Burning Plain,” Rodríguez’s title is a translation of El llano en llamas, Juan Rulfo’s celebrated short story collection. Fittingly, Rulfo’s stories consist entirely of interior monologues spoken by characters that wander bleak, crepuscular landscapes. Like the painter’s figures, they haunt rather than traipse the desolate roads they travel.
Like Rulfo’s narratives, Rodríguez’s canvases don’t trade in conventional stories or aim to portray realistic landscapes—beyond, that is, loosely jotting down a few recognizable elements. Instead, they conjure up atmospheres that propose questions rather than answers, enigmas in place of straightforward meanings. Like a strange dream, a great song or a blurred memory, Rodríguez’s pictures describe inner states of consciousness—ones that are recalled less as fact than as emotion. Their cumulative if stubborn logic is that of a pensive, blue future remembered: the snow falls steadily, but on a burning plain.