By Kevin Blake

There is a natural reaction to becoming something when one realizes their own metamorphosis. As adolescence is whisked away by time, the memory of how one arrives in the present is often blurred, fragmented, and skewed toward whatever end the individual has made for themselves. Though actions make memories, so too, does the memory create actions. In his current exhibition, “La Paz” at the Hyde Park Art Center, Rodrigo Lara Zendejas, investigates his memories to locate the beginnings of his practice–a practice rooted in a garden.

Installation View of “La Paz” @ HPAC

Kevin Blake: I have followed the evolution of your work for the last two years and what continues to astound me, is your ability and willingness to traverse material disciplines with a sort of unflinching loyalty to your ideas. This show really runs the gamut–from installations that consider four-dimensional space, to works that hint at traditional observational painting. Can you talk about your relationship to your materials, and why you have chosen to have such interplay between them?

Rodrigo Lara Zendejas: I have been working mostly in three-dimensional work for the last 17 years, and exploring installation work for the last 6 years; in many cases I am interested in the connection between 2-D and 3-D practices. When I had the opportunity to schedule the exhibition at HPAC I immediately thought about pushing my boundaries and exploring different approaches in my practice, but it was also important to me to examine a deeper balance and conversation between different media.

My training is for a classical sculptor. In addition to that, I am a musician: I play drums, cornet and clarinet. In my studio practice, I feel a similarity between playing an instrument and the execution of the artwork.  I find the rhythm and cadence of the materials when I am working, when I am shaping or implementing. The body actions are sometimes sudden and rapid, sometimes subtle and slow. In both scenarios I sit on a chair, and execute specific body actions utilizing my two hands and wooden sticks. Therefore, technique, preparation and the execution of the work are essential aspects in my practice.

This exhibition relates to my grandparent’s garden, which I consider my first studio at age 10. I spent a month developing forms out of adobe and soil mixing them with found objects and plants. My grandfather, a miner at the time, as a serious hobby painted numerous catholic motifs. Inside their house, I was exposed to examine several paintings and charcoal drawings he made. I asked him to teach me how to paint during that summer; he refused, however. “You are too young to understand color theory,” he said.  In the absence of receiving painting lessons, I continued modeling and developing an interest in forming sculpture out of whatever materials I found in their backyard: soil, wood, found objects and plants. Therefore, I wanted to combine media treating the materials, including painting and sound in a similar methodology.

Installation View “La Paz” @ HPAC

KB: I’m interested in how you consider the garden your first studio. The historical narrative points to the obvious connection to the first garden of Abrahamic yore (the religious motifs abound in this exhibition), but the metaphorical relationship of the garden to an artist’s studio practice seems equally relevant. Can you expound on the idea of the garden as a metaphor for a studio practice?

RLZ: It is very important to me to approach this metaphor of the garden as a studio practice. As a child, I was aware that my grandfather was a painter, but I did not know that painting could be a way of life–I thought it was just a hobby. I wanted to go back to that space where there was complete freedom to create what I wanted, but now with formal training in combination with  conscious and unconscious technical approaches to the materials, concepts and processes.

It is true that there is a similarity on the idea of that garden is connected to my studio practice but also it was very similar to being part of a residency program. In which an artist explores and improvises with materials and tools available in situ; therefore, the maker is able to develop ideas and concepts.

It is also true, that there are several religious motifs in this installations and pieces, referencing the theatricality of the characters poses and facial expressions, as well as the installation arrangements being similar to altars, memorials and sacred praying precincts. In addition to that, According to Catholicism, God created the human race from a piece of clay, which later came to live. On the other hand, my grandmother would tell us stories about children in “La Paz” who obsessively played with their toys at all times. As a result, they would disobey their parents, then the toys would be possessed by the devil and come to live and start talking to those kids. I was scared and also fascinated by both stories.

Installation View “La Paz” @ HPAC

KB: I’ve heard of the bedeviled toys and I do get the sense of this narrative not only in the scale of your figurative sculptures, but in the anthropomorphized nature of their features. The predominately human bodies have animal parts and the animal bodies have human extremities (i.e. the duck’s beak on the altar boy or the human hands on the dog). To bring back to the garden, however, I wonder what parallels exist between the human’s relationship to the foods we grow or the plants we feel we dominate, and the objects we project our consciousness onto. It seems obvious that both endeavors, gardening and making objects, begin with the assumption that you, the individual, is in control of the outcomes. Yet, a simple thought experiment would bring you quickly to the conclusion, that this is far from the reality of the matter.  In the ordinary course of events an acorn becomes a tree, but it often becomes squirrel food. So, do you see this phenomena of becoming, whatever it is you are evolving into(in and out of the studio), something within the realm of your control? How much do impulse and intuition dictate outcomes in your studio?

RLZ: In previous series of work I would make conscious decisions beforehand. Controlled results and concepts would be analyzed previously. In this particular series however, I was interested in creating memorials of specific moments or situations in my childhood as a starting point, and combine that with the present. Therefore, I would start with precise ideas; from there I would investigate and create particular scenarios. According to the materials I knew I would utilize, I allowed ambiguous compositions to evolve during the making process; as a result, unexpected outcomes will manifest, sometimes more controlled results would take place. I would see that connection to the way a plants grow and the way people would take care of them, as you mention, we might think we are in control of the result but in La Paz I wanted intuition to take place.

KB: As the garden acts as a metaphor for your first studio, the works within this garden act as a self-portrait of its grower. Often times, a portrait of you is embedded into these individual pieces, but like your other figures, you’ve bastardized the form. For example, in the largest painting in the exhibition, you have painted yourself sitting into the portrait of another man and becoming part of the space. This form actually seems to reappear in at least one other painting. Obviously the narrative of this show is very personal to your experience, but can you speak to the fragmented nature of the self-portraiture occurring throughout this exhibition?

RLZ: In order to remember important public figures, monuments have been erected around the world. However, each of us has our own firsthand figures to memorialize. The fragmented figures and narratives within the installations and paintings are conscious decisions during the process. However the references and memories are very personal, the way of leaving fragments, the viewer is encouraged to complete gaps and create their own narratives. The juxtaposed and bastardized figures, questions the idea of temporality, connecting reminiscences to the present. I am interested in the work by Jaume Plensa and Mark Manders, the idea of memories about particular objects in particular moments and specific scenarios.

KB: I’ve always had a particular interest in memory and how it functions in creating personal narratives in the present. Most discourse surrounding memory focuses on the earliest stages of development as if there is an incubation period in which the individual experiences the downloading of his/her default settings–settings that they will be working with/against for the rest of their lives. Do you get the sense that the more you recall, or rehearse, or put to work, a particular memory, the more prolific those memories become in your work and your life? How has this process of recall and transformation within the limits of this exhibition changed your approach to your work?

RLZ: The more I have been thinking about that idea for the last few years, the more I agree with this notion of the incubation period you mention. Recalling that period reminds me of the freedom of expression and execution in the work, there is not particular rehearse, neither being afraid of failure. Particularly in the process, that is the reason why in many pieces there is an intimate connection to the viewer. Pieces are unfinished or in progress, in a few cases you can see the evident finger marks and body motions on the materials, instead of traditionally expected final textures. The viewer is able to observe the material as it comes from the factory. As an example, there are two pieces in which you can clearly see the squared shape of the clay as it comes in the bag, even the wrinkles that it produces. I wanted to continue this exploration in ‘La Paz’ series; however, I started that notion in the previous installation I made called ‘Chapel’ currently on display at 6018North. The experiences of the viewer are like coming into the studio space, becoming a witness of the process.  In a way, this is a similar approach that Manders uses in his work. In his case he mimics clay with bronze, instead, a few of my pieces in ‘La Paz’ I mimic bronze with clay.

Installation View “La Paz” @ HPAC

KB: Your approach to calling attention to the materials by means of exposing their commercial production is a methodology deeply entrenched in the collective discourse of painting. I had the sense that this was an idea you were wrestling with in your painted surfaces. There are places in the largest painting, for instance, where the under painting is left in its infancy. As you traverse material boundaries, do you feel the necessity to dig into painting tropes or do you see the way you are using materials solely outside of that discourse? Also, the two paintings on pedestals at the ground level seemed out of place to me, but they also seemed to possibly indicate a direction for future work. How do those two more traditional perceptual paintings fit and is painting something you are moving toward?

RLZ: In a way, some of the pieces are a response to comments from my grandfather, who was a painter. The portrait in the largest painting is a reproduction of a graphite self-portrait he maid when he was 18 years old. I remember spending time admiring the quality of the lines and shades. I decided I would memorialize that drawing by making a painting juxtaposing the garden plants with the unfinished layers and process of my own self-portrait, leaving traces of metaphorical and technical temporality.

On the other hand, the two paintings placed on the floor were made after photographs of a visit I made to my grandparents house a few months ago (now abandoned for about 10 years) in which I am also memorializing their personal effects such as the telephone and the wooden furniture. Most important, I am treating sections of the oil paint as if I was working with clay, utilizing the same methods and tools. Particularly, that technique was executed for the architectural surfaces. I remember my grandfather telling me stories about his father and him building the house with their own hands, utilizing adobe blocks. This is the same way the whole town of ‘La Paz’ was built. At that time I was amazed by the fact that the houses in town were made out of basically soil and plats, being those the same elemental materials I was playing with in the backyard. In a way, thru those paintings I am also making a portrait of the house, displaying them as self-standing memorial architectural objects. I have been exploring the connection between two to three dimensions in the work, idea in which I will continue exploring.

KB: What is on the horizon for you in the studio and beyond?

RLZ:  I am currently focusing on the three following projects: A two-person exhibition opening on May 20th at Fernway Gallery in Chicago, as part of my ACRE residency in 2015. The exhibition will continue the exploration of the “Chapel” series. On the other hand, I am working on a Solo Exhibition “Cachirules” at Kruger Gallery in Marfa, Texas for the Chinati weekend Oct. 7-9 2016. In early 2017 I am working on an exhibition curated by Julie Rodrigues Widholm at the DePaul Art Museum, also related to the “Chapel” series.

Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago.