Cuban-born artist explores another world in the desert

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An article by Greg Archer for The Desert Sun.

A few years after his experience in the park, when Rodriguez was 7 years old, his family was exiled from Cuba to New Orleans. He says that both cultures from his childhood left an indelible imprint on his heart and psyche, profoundly shaping the way he now views life and approaches art. His abstract, landscape, and figurative works, for instance, showcase personal vulnerabilities and threads of nostalgia are woven into the theme of connection. The work often features oceans and landscapes and the use of rich colors and raised surfaces to convey a story.

“I remember so many mid-century elements in Cuba — art deco, texture, and layers of plaster and concrete,” Rodriguez says. “That’s what I want my paintings to reflect, falling somewhere between painting and sculpture.”

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Rodriguez studied fine arts at the University of New Orleans, and later transferred to San Francisco’s Academy of Art University (formerly Academy of Art College) for graphic design. He went on to work in fashion design for many years, but after a creative shift 18 years ago, he fully immersed himself in his current artistic process.

“I didn’t start painting until I was ready to,” he says. “I could not have done what I am doing now without all of the other things. All of that prepared me.”

In essence, Rodriguez’s art career began on the dining room table in the West Hollywood apartment he shared with his husband, Patrick Davis. At the time, one of the couple’s friends, Mike Johnson, owned a gallery in Los Angeles, and Rodriguez first began showing his work there. Nearly 20 years later, he and Davis oversee a successful, far-reaching art career and business. In addition to showing his work locally at A La Mod in Palm Springs, the artist was recently commissioned by Andrew Cook of the Gold Coast Concert Artists to produce four works of art to accompany classical pieces of chamber music performed locally. Rodriguez and Davis also collaborate with a premier rental set design service in Hollywood — his work has graced the sets of a variety of television shows over the years, including “Joey,” “Two And A Half Men,” and “Last Man Standing.”

The use of raised plaster is paramount in Rodriguez’s work. The artist begins by applying papier mâché on top of cardboard. Once it’s dried, he shapes plaster in various sections, waits for that to dry and then begins to texture the areas to his liking. Several applications of watered-downed acrylic paints are then applied.

He says he feels truly “at home” whenever he delves into the creative process.

“When I am painting, it’s a natural flow for me,” Rodriguez muses from his home-based studio in Palm Springs. “I get lost in my work — not in a negative context. I disappear into it and I travel through every single space. If it were a landscape, I would be travelling through it. And that really is a wonderful feeling.”

In “Sweet Savior,” which is a part of Max Rodriguez’s “Heroes, Heroines, Misfits and Metaphors” series, the artist addresses the intensity many males in Cuba face. “One of the reasons we left Cuba was because by the time you became a teenager, you would either have to go into the military or cut sugar cane in the fields,” he explains. “It’s grueling work. All of my uncles went to cut sugar cane; my cousins went. But often you hear stories of people never returning from that kind of work.” That reality became the impetus for “Sweet Savior,” where the artist depicts the cane worker as a kind of savior or saint. The worker’s hat, for example, is reminiscent of a halo — the “halo” and the sugar cane were crafted with raised plaster and goldleaf. Set against a fiery burnt orange backdrop, “Sweet Savior” is one of Rodriguez’s most dramatic works.

 

This mixed media on panel creation from the “Heroes, Heroines, Misfits and Metaphors” series is delicate yet provokes an ominous mood with its nude female prisoner. The artist’s choice of scene, oil paints, and raised plaster (on the flag) were inspired by true stories about the plight of Cubans imprisoned for taking a stand against the government. Rather than showcasing a male prisoner, something that many other artists have done, Rodriguez opted to feature a female and positioned her on a Cuban flag with her back exposed. The figurative work took several months to birth.

 

In “Passages: Gilded City,” a part of the artist’s “Metaphors and Oceans” series, notice the raised plaster in the lower portion of the piece. Combined with the gold-painted imagery at the top of the work, it adds depth to the artist’s message — an allegory of a perfect city sitting high above a wall that seems insurmountable. “I wanted to preserve the memory of Cuba,” Rodriguez says. “It’s my homage to Havana, which was a golden city for me. But I would not be able to survive there now.” Some of the gold areas contain the words “marriage” and “citizenship” — two things Rodriguez says he would never have been able to experience had he remained in Cuba.

 

The new works in Rodriguez’s “Washed Ashore” series revolve around the theme of transformation, which he says can be “an ephemeral or lifelong process of change.” The series depicts water or oceans as a way to convey emotional journeys or ones with an environmental slant. “Oceans are journeys to another shore; journeys to another life,” Rodriguez notes. “They can end a life. They can start a journey for someone.” In “Congregation,” the artist molded plaster to create the rock-like shapes and painted them with watered down acyclic paint. The result is abstract yet subtle. “I wanted to show that in this little part of the ocean, this little section of the planet, we are all different and how beautiful that really is,” he says.

In “Silent Drift,” from the “Washed Ashore” series, Rodriguez uses a variety of light, and deep blue and aquamarine hues for a work with an environmental slant. With so many reports of melting polar ice caps, the artist wanted his imagery to convey the slow rise of ocean waters, one of the more threatening occurrences on the planet. “I don’t want to be forceful with my stories,” he says. “I want to be calm with them. That’s what I like about this painting. It’s about the drift and changes occurring now.” The raised plaster, his artistic signature, invites observers in for deeper reflection. Note the gold-tinged figures at the very top. Rodriguez says that these are open for interpretation. They can resemble mountains in the distance, or sunlight hitting a shoreline.

If You Go:

See Max Rodriguez’s art at maxrodriguezart.com and A La Mod, 886 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, (760) 327-0707.

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