fig. 12: Los Celos
Acrylic, wood, laminates, 25.75x29.25"
© Anita Rodriguez, 1997
People always ask why I use skeletons. To begin with, the image of death has been present in Mexican art since pre-Columbian times. There are skulls on the temples, calaveras abound in Mexican folk art, and there is probably no Mexican artist who has not used them at one time or another. My paternal grandfather was from Parral, Chiguagua and I love Mexican art. So, given my cultural background, using skeletons is not surprising. The emphasis on the image of death in the art and architecture of North Central America is indicative of an attitude toward death that is distinctly different from that of English-speaking America.
My own attitude is illustrative: Death, I believe, is what makes life precious and meaningful. Without it, what difference would our actions make - whether they are moral or not? Death is a great teacher. If you contact your own personal death on a daily basis, that dialogue will give you great personal power. It will give you the power to distinguish between what is really important and what should be forgotten or forgiven; it will teach you to treasure those you love, to treasure fragile species, to treasure every moment - sunsets, a glass of water, life's special moments; above all meditation on one's own death will teach one to be unafraid of death. Someone who is afraid of death will also be afraid of life.
My paintings are about life. My characters are very much alive. They are dancing, making love, driving around in their lowriders, eating, getting married. The image of death in these settings makes the life I paint more pungent, poignant, more precious.
My art is rooted in the rich seedbed of New Mexican culture. My father owned a drugstore on the Plaza and literally knew everybody in what was then a much smaller and intimate town. Sundays he would take us "dando la vuelta" in his 1939 Studebaker to the villages. We would stop at the oratorios, santarios, moradas and churches - I saw a lot of religious art in my childhood, which obviously influenced what I paint today. Daddy was a terrible photographer, and was documenting outhouses. So we not only stopped at all religious buildings and shines, we also stopped at all outhouses. These trips were embellished with the characters we met and the stories they and my father, who loved his culture, told us. My father was an acknowledged story teller in his community. This material has given me an endless supply of stories and subject matter for my art.
My mother was an artist - not from the Hispanic art tradition but from an old Austin family and trained in Eurocentric art forms. In fact she came here to study art with Walter Ufer. My parents' friends were the founders of the art colony in Taos. So I was surrounded by art and artist and art-talk.
The magical atmosphere of my painting comes from the ability to cross from one cultural reality to another. I learned at an early age that parallel worlds co-exist wherever people speak different languages and believe in different ways of life. The crypto-Jew paintings especially play with this concept - many of them are painted in nicho form (niches with doors that open and close, derived from Mexican folk-art) and invite the viewer to step into the reality of another world. The physical act of opening the doors commits the viewer to participate in the story, of believing in the little mini-theater I have made. They are forced to imagine what it must have been like to practice Judaism in secret while publicly living a Catholic life in the community. The nichos are little theaters. The text is the narrative, the details that the viewer has to look for, the surprises that are tucked away in half-hidden corners.
When one becomes expert in crossing boundaries, psychic boundaries are a snap. In my "artist mode," I can cross over into a world where the saints are alive, where they act out their stories and wear flesh. I try and make the saints seem more human, to show that their spiritual attainments are not beyond the reach of ordinary people like the viewer. I always paint the saints with flesh.
Several major themes run through my art. There are the dancers - perhaps it is the archetypal dancer, or the dance of the cosmos, the dance of atomic particles, the sensation of dancing - I'm not sure, but dancers keep coming onto the stage of my canvases. The cars - I love cars. The lowrider, to me, is a commentary on the collision between technology and the mythic whimsy of my people. Of course, the Crypto-Jew series goes on and on, telling the story and making a tribute to those people who kept their traditions in the face of the Inquisition and in secret for so long. I have a series I call "Peregrinación" that is about pilgrimage - not only the traditional Semana Santa pilgrimage to Chimayó but the pilgrimage that is life itself, the pilgrimage that was the history and migrations of my ancestors. There is the "Zoquette Series" - which about adobe techniques, our native architecture and building.
On the whole, my work represents (as does all art) my personal experience - which in my case is a particularly rich cultural experience.
Anita Rodriguez' artwork is in the permanent collections of the Albuquerque Museum of Art, History and Science and the Millicent Rodgers Museum, Taos, New Mexico. Her work has been reproduced in Hadassah Magazine, May 1995, and on the cover of Rudolfo Anaya's book, Albuquerque. She is listed in the first issue of the New Mexico Directory of Hispanic Culture (Albuquerque, NM) and in Nuestras Mujeras, Hispanas of New Mexico, El Norte Publications, Albuquerque.
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All text and images © Anita Rodriguez.