Societies rise and fall through evolution and entropy, the latter a universal principle of inevitable collapse, more certain than any progress. Visual artist Gamaliel Rodríguez chronicles this decay viewed from the sky, shifting through the rubble from the vantage point of 1,000 feet. Using ballpoint pen, colored pencil and markers on paper, along with acrylic inks on canvas, his large-scale drawings present images that are high-resolution ruminations on civilizations’ imminent dissolution. Clusters of trees jettison through broken structures like the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. Large silo-like buildings appear splayed out like bloated corpses, split in two as tendrils of knotty foliage gather to engulf them. Rodríguez’s landscapes are powerful glimpses of abandoned structures toppled by the shifting weight of civilization’s onward march, halted by financial gains now turned to losses. Rodríguez’s new exhibit at Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, A Third Way to Look at You, pertains to his ongoing commentary on these very same cycles.
“The title refers to the Finnish theorist Marcos Casagrande. According to his theory of the Third Generation City, in the first generation of cities, humans coexist with nature; in the second, built structures are erected and diminish nature’s presence; and in the third generation, upon the collapse of the second, nature grows back through the ruins of architectural remains and absorbs the human-built environment back into itself,” explains Rodríguez. “I like to create in my work a ‘Fourth Generation’ from a state of economical struggle. I state that we may [all] confront [this] in a near future.”
Featuring eight large-scale drawings, the exhibit is a continuation of his ongoing Figures series, as well as new elements born from that work. Pieces from A Third Way… resemble blueprints of ruin that can appear almost animated. In Figure 1759, a warehouse-like building hemorrhages trees. Rendered in blue ink, its deft, sharp lines are met by rising treetops that resemble black smoke as they burst through the structure. In Figure 1760, the rectangular building is literally pushed skyward as if it’s being purged from the forest. An engulfed, ship-like structure in Figure 1816 drowns into the forest. The Figures reinforce the phenomenon that the very earth we’re trying to dominate soon overtakes the failures that we abandon.
The unified theme of Rodríguez’s work describes this universal abandonment; in this instance, sparked by the effect of money as it moves toward, into and through a place; specifically, of his homeland of Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory with an extraordinary debt of $74 billion,” says Rodríguez, of a financial situation that has created uncertainty on the island. “Our debts have transformed our landscape [into] abandoned hotels, schools, hospitals … and in the same way, I think some locals have abandoned the illusion of a better island.” Riffing on this duality of landscape/loss, some of Rodríguez’s hyperrealist images are from a constructed realism.
“Sometimes, I use real images to develop a ‘real perspective’ to create the illusion of a landscape, but then comes the fun part. To invent, to elaborate false objects, roads or valleys that in a way it may be recognized from everywhere—but not a particular—territory, country, city, etc.,” he explains. “Other times, I work completely from imagination—I love that more. I don’t do preparatory drawings. I like to go directly to the ‘problem’ and ‘resolve’ it by doing [the drawing]. I start with shadows and lines to try to find a landscape in the infinite of the white canvas.”
The meticulousness of Rodríguez’s drawings shows he works on each for hours a day. Some take days to complete, others months. This painstaking attention to detail points to a notoriously unforgiving media.
“The idea behind using ballpoint pen was to create an illusion, of engraving” says Rodríguez. “It seems like dry point or etching, but ultimately it’s a drawing; it is a unique piece.”
Rodríguez has impressive creds as a contemporary visual artist. In 2004, he earned a BA from Visual Arts University of Sacred Heart in San Juan; in ’05, an MFA from England’s Kent Institute of Art & Design. Globally, his work has been in more than 40 solo and group shows, including Occupy Museums’ project for 2017’s Whitney Biennial. He’s been invited to more than a dozen residency programs, through which many local artists and art lovers may be familiar with him and his work.
In October 2016, Long Road Projects asked Rodríguez to be the artist in residence in Jacksonville. Under the auspices of co-creators Aaron Levi Garvey and Stevie Covart Garvey, LRP invites internationally renowned artists to the area to create and interact with local artists and supporters of the arts. “Long Road Projects was a great experience,” says Rodríguez. “Stevie and Aaron are doing a great job to interact international artists with the Jacksonville community.” Rodríguez says that he was impressed by encountering locals like Christy Frazier, Dustin Harewood, Chip Southworth and George Cornwell, among others. As the proverbial guest visitor looking in, Rodríguez offered the artists his views on Jacksonville defining itself as its own art identity. “I told them that they do not need to aim to create the ‘Next Wynwood’ there like in Miami, but rather to create the ‘New Jax.’ There is so much potential there,” he says. “The art world is decentralized. It is no more one particular place, but a small cosmos of great places