Saturday, November 6, 2010


MAX RODRIGUEZ understands that art is an act of freedom. Art and its creation can sustain us in times of great joy, but also during times of great pain and loss. Art's consolation and hope are the driving forces in the creative act. It has the ability to let us reflect upon where we came from and the roads on which we begin anew.  Born in Cuba, Rodriguez witnessed and absorbed everything of his native country's joys and pain: its landscapes and color, its rich community of working laborers; its political rituals and its harnessing of freedoms. His eye and heart took all this in at a very young age, and it was the basis for paintings that would be created many years later, when these memories found expression in his canvases.  Escaping to the U.S. with his family, at the age of seven, his new life would lead him to a world where he could look back as he grew forward.  And so these paintings of his memories are imbued with beauty and sacredness.  They depict lives that are strong, and willed with hope. For Rodriguez, his past renews his gift of being able to remember and love deeply what is behind him, and to live in the present with full attention to what he is most thankful for: the art which is always inside him.
What were your early experiences in Cuba that most affected the beginning of your art? 
As a child, I remember my family and their struggles to get food and supplies and having to wait in long ration lines, to covertly trade food and clothing with neighbors, and the secrecy about activities around me that I didn't understand -- all under colorful visions of music, unforgettable landscapes, superstitions and voodoo and family love.
Who supported and mentored you during your development as an artist?
I believe all my experiences, and the many people whose paths have crossed mine, from a very young age have helped in the mentoring of my art. But since I didn't become a professional artist until later in my life, I’ve had tremendous mentoring from my partner Patrick, who is also my business partner, my dearest friend Paul Rudnicki, who has passed on, and Mike Johnson, who allowed me to show my work in his gallery with incredible trust and understanding of my story.
Your figure work has a transcendental quality to the figures – whether they are in the midst of hard work, or waiting on line, or engaging with each other – you paint them with sacredness. Can you speak to this series of paintings?
I  come from a family with honest, hard work ethics, and, although my father was a successful food marketer, when we arrived in this country he had to begin from scratch. With both my parents working in whatever job came to them, and usually two jobs each, they approached it as a blessing. I find that most people would understand this concept, especially today. I want the figures I paint to be very present in their lives and experiencing the fullness of their labor and craft.  I strive to show their dedication, the hardship and the satisfaction in their lives, because sometimes it is a luxury for them to even be working at a job.
The painting “Drifting Away" is a powerful composition, disarmingly simple. The figure almost has the form of a crucifix, as it lies in the wake of the water, seen from above. It’s a political image of course, with contemporary resonance, but it also a very poignant and human symbol of hope through despair. How did you this image come to you? 
Some of my fondest memories are going to the beaches in Cuba as far back as age four. I remember these large black tire inner tubes everyone used as lifesavers or water floaters; kids and adults enjoying the playfulness and relaxing times in the sun. As an adult, I became more interested in Cuban history and heard many  stories of hundreds of Cubans fleeing the island for freedom in these fragile inner tubes. The thought of a person wanting freedom so desperately to take to the dark ocean alone in an inner tube is very filled with anxiety and sadness to me, yet such a brave act. The contrasting emotions of this relaxing, playful activity bringing about someone's ultimate doom created this image and its veiled intentions. At what point in a man's life must one make a decision of  such extreme tribulation to surrender and let go? Will I survive this ordeal or will it overcome me? Yes, it is a crucified man in an inner tube.  He must surrender to this choice, and, yet, the act of surrendering is also very liberating. This veiled theme is a continuous one in my work. I absolutely love " Drifting Away" and it still brings a wave of emotions as I sit here and answer this question, for we all know of that choice we  must make at any point in our lives. 
Your field workers paintings, such as the men in “Cana”,  and “It’s In Our Blood” have the qualities of santos about them – their hats are almost halos. You see them as very important elements of Cuban life.
Cuban agriculture, especially tobacco and sugar, is its largest export. Grueling farm work that many men and women under the regime had to work at to make a living. Relatives of mine worked the fields under government order and perished, never to return home. My family's choice with young sons was either to send us to military school to join the forces or to work the fields at a very pre-adolescent age. The fear about what that choice would bring was the determinate factor of our exile. The field workers is a story of migrant workers, labor abuse, and survival. The hardships and, yes, sometimes the blood it has cost many, have created an an image of an iconic figure for me. How little we credit the farmers of such costly crops who provide us with such sweet profits creates an image of virtuousness just trying to make a living.
Your political perspectives always include the respect of the individual first. All of your paintings imbue them with a very deep love. The painting “Low Tied” is especially striking – the trees in the background almost seem as if they have become blood. Yet the figure looks forward with hope. How do you combine such ideas in your work?
Thank you. This painting gets such opposite reactions it's absolutely exciting. I agree, my intention for this piece is one of hope. The heat of the colors and brightness melts away the image in the background. The man is saying:  "I don't want what's behind me, what I'm chained to. I look only to what must be far away for escape. The sun blinds the future yet I don't see the present. I am alone chained to sand, narrow minded and weak." It is an immigration story. Is our freedom in distant lands or is it in the very spot we are standing?
When you left Cuba, how did your art develop?
I can remember drawing and painting even as a child in Cuba, and as a high schooler found myself interested in drafting and architecture, leading me to study art in college and at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Working in the fashion manufacturing business, and then having my own business of decorative painting for interiors, all led me to transfer my artistic craft onto canvas and experiment with all the different techniques I had learned over the years.  Confidence with my style increased and gallery shows and sales emerged. I was a late bloomer when it came to painting.  Afraid of letting go of  the decorative painting business that brought me steady money, yet tired of climbing ladders, took a leap of faith.  But it has paid off, and I love, love, love my profession as a full-time artist.
Do you have friends in Cuba who are also artists? 
I'm sorry to say that I do not. 
What are the challenges there for artists today?
I do not have friends there and very little family left as well.  Information I have learned from some of the gallery owners I have worked with or visited that represent Cuban art is that Cuban art that travels outside of Cuba is very regimented by the government. Thus the messages in the art are abstract and are not "in your face" contradictions of the story the artist is telling.   Gallery owners have told me the art scene there is changing quickly.
You attended art school in two very different cities – New Orleans and San Francisco; what were the academic experiences in each that were important to you? How were they different?

                In New Orleans I studied fine art classes with an emphasis on drafting. I originally wanted to be an architect, but I believed my lack of interest in math would have made that impossible.  In San Francisco I extended my studies to graphic design with private tutoring in clothing design and pattern drafting.  I loved fashion, and not only the textiles, textures, prints and proportions, but, also, believe it or not, the mathematics. That eventually made it possible for me to be an assistant designer for Welter Design Group in Los Angeles a few years later. I believe now that all the learning in every single course and job I've had has contributed even in the smallest way to each and every painting I touch. 

What experiences in America most changed you as an artist?
Growing up in New Orleans in the '60s and '70s provided so much culture and color along with a diversity of issues the South was dealing with. Poverty, racism, and religious rhetoric were everywhere. At the same time we ourselves were poor and adjusting to a new life in the U.S.  We heard stories of the  struggles members of our family were having as a  result of the Castro regime.  Then, the sexual revolution hit and my realization of my sexuality was terrifying yet exhilarating.  The impact of most of these events sparked a fire in me to tell my own story, and that's where many of the ideas for my paintings originated. 
Your abstractions of nature also seek to create a sense of the sacredness of the environment. Why is this important to you, and such an inspiration in your work?
Everything around us is a part of us. I try to respect the details that an environment provides for me as a visual artist, from the smallest of details as rust on a rock to the greater view from that rock onto the desert plane. There is an abundance of art in every square foot. We must care for this as we care for ourselves. 
 Can you describe your processes in creating the “Natural Impressions” pieces?
The series "Natural Impressions" is an example of that "square foot of art" in everything. Sometimes nature can be delicate, alluring and beautiful and at times very confrontational and repellent. I love to find the graceful duality within that. I use plaster to impress images as a way to fossilize them on to a surface and then try to color and style them like ancient frescoes with their distressed and weathered attributes in an attempt to capture them as if coming from another, older time. 
You have had wide representation in galleries; can you speak about the gallery scene in Florida, as compared to New York or other cities, in terms of how your work is received?
I am very pleased at the acceptance I have received in such diverse states as Florida and Texas. My decorative, commercial work and my landscapes have been popular with art consultants that place the art in healthcare and hospitality projects. They tell me that the calmness and soothing colors appeals to their clients.   My art gallery representation has been mainly in the Western U.S., mostly in the Los Angeles area.  I've also participated in a few juried shows, which is how I got my paintings in the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist's Coalition show and into your home.  The art gallery business has been hurting as a result of the recession, and several galleries, which were showing my work, have closed in the last couple years.   I'm always looking for new exhibition opportunities.  I find that wherever I show my art it is well received. Since moving to Palm Springs a couple years ago, I've joined the local art scene and show pieces at local exhibitions organized by the City of Palm Springs and the Palm Springs Art Museum.  I'm also represented at Howard Schepp Fine Art on El Paseo in Palm Desert, which is the Rodeo Drive of this area. 
As an artist, what is your primary goal in terms of using your art to effect change and bring attention to the issues that are important to you? 
 As I get older the ideal of freedom really got elusive for me. Although we practice many freedoms here, the fundamental idea of freedom is abused in politics, religion and speech through the lack of kindness and equality. At the same time, I've had the opportunities living in this country that I can strive to achieve anything I desire. And, as an artist and with lots of hard work, I can expand my life even more. The ability to express myself in the field of art with no restrictions is a very important freedom  that I cherish tremendously.  All of this leads me to believe that our challenges are still very similar throughout our nation and the rest of the world.  This is my enthusiasm in my work, to tell stories and experiences that are close to my heart and to try to influence resolution and peace in the viewers' lives.
What is ahead for you? What new projects attract you?
I've been planning a series of figurative paintings in the theme of "arrivals". I'm going back in time to the beginning of the Americas.  I'm also a featured artist at the new PICTURE Cultural Art Center at California State University, Dominguez Hills in the Los Angeles area.  Through Mike Johnson and Thai Ha, the Center's president and founder, respectively, PICTURE will feature art exhibits dedicated to furthering the dialog around cultural awareness and harmony.  Mike Johnson is the owner of "Drifting Away," and Thai Ha has several of my machetero paintings.  I will be involved with upcoming exhibitions at the Center, which focus on issues surrounding human rights, faith and family, among other topics.   

Images, top to bottom: "Cana"; "Yearning"; "Drifting Away"; "Sweet Savior"; "Low Tied"; "Rumors"; "Daily Ration"; "A Birthday Wish"; "El Mulato"; "Beyond the Green Forest"; from the "Natural Impressions" series; "Santero"; "Waiting".  

All images copyright MAX RODRIGUEZ, 2010; used with the kind permission of the artist. To see more of his work, visit his website.   Also read an interview with the artist  in "The Desert Sun" newspaper.