Who owns art? A sensational debut, a lingering question

Diego Rodriguez-Warner, untitled painting, 2016, acrylic, gouache, spray paint, latex paint and wood stain on carved panel.

Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s “Honestly Lying” at the MCA Denver is a dazzling museum debut by a young artist in his own hometown. The work on display is smashingly visceral, overloaded with big and colorful collages you can’t ignore. The technique he uses to produce it — covering wood panels with paint and stain like a painter, but also carving into their surfaces the way a printmaker creates a block for printing — is something I’ve never seen before.

That’s not to say the work is fully original. Rodriguez-Warner makes his art by combining a multitude of images from other artists’ toolboxes — what appears to be a snippet of Matisse here, a hint of Picasso there, perhaps something grabbed from a comic, or a sample from a traditional Japanese print. The exact references are vague; it may not be actual Gauguin or Manet or Géricault or Walt Disney soundbites that Rodriguez-Warner employs, but that’s what viewers may believe they see at “Honestly Lying.”

There’s a distinct generational license to it all. Rodriguez-Warner was born in 1986 and this body of work is rooted in an era that integrated graffiti art, Manga comics, murals and, most notably, the musical remix into Western pop culture. He works in the way a DJ does when spinning records, joining together existing, familiar elements so that their edges clash, connect and slightly overlap. Like music blaring in a nightclub, the visual noise never stops. The art samples he taps work as nostalgic, sentimental triggers that keep the audience hooked.

Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s series of “Bathing Gypsy” paintings, 2013-2015, gouache, acrylic paint, spray paint, latex paint and wood stain on carved panel.

To buy into its legitimacy as museum-quality art is to accept this idea that the taking and remaking of other people’s art is the same as art itself — that the derivative work is as worthy as the original. Rodriguez-Warner is bold to beg a comparison of his talents to those of god-like Matisse — and also, of course, mortally foolish.

There’s no coverup going on here. “All of the things you want to draw already exist,” he said during a talk at the museum last February. So, he mines them from the universe of existing things, takes, steals, cobbles, honors, celebrates — it depends on your point of view. Curator Zoe Larkins, who does a remarkably unbiased job of laying out her artist’s process, included in this show a counter full of actual bits and scraps from Rodriguez-Warner’s studio that he taps into when making models for his larger constructions. It looks like the evidence table at a criminal trial.

He’s not breaking any copyright laws and to be certain, there are no clear rules on such taking in the visual arts world, where the practice is called appropriation, not stealing.  Artists have been using elements not of their own creation widely and proudly for a long time. Marcel Duchamp famously appropriated a urinal 101 years ago for his landmark “Fountain.” Andy Warhol took Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes. The British artist Richard Hamilton, dubbed the father of Pop Art, cribbed advertisements from the “Ladies Home Journal.”

 

Artists of varying fame and reputation — Pablo Picasso, Joseph Cornell, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman — are on the list of appropriators, as are of-the-moment newcomers, like Ramiro Gomez, Justin Favela and Andrew Jensdotter. For the most part, all of their actions are meant as a commentary on social customs, consumerism, current events or the history of art itself.

Rodriguez-Warner’s raw material choices leave viewers guessing. The images don’t seem to be related to each other at all in a narrative sense, and the completed pieces don’t feel especially political or provocative, other than some very violent moments.

“I’m not exactly sure why I pick the things I pick,” he said in that recent talk — and that leaves him with art that has a lot of content, but doesn’t say much.

“Curled Toes,” by Diego Rodriguez-Warner, 2015, gouache on carved panel.

His skill, and it is vast and growing as this exhibit shows, is in visual construction, the way he weaves lines and shapes and repeats images with interesting variations; the way he “disassembles, twists, reforms and refills” things, as Larkins describes his process for a series of “Bathing Gypsies,” created from 2013 to 2015.

Rodriguez-Warner juxtaposes things at will — a flower, a severed leg, a sword, a splat of blood. He sets detailed human figures in front of a backdrop of simple line drawings. He breaks up complex landscapes by painting into them the white frames you see separating panels in a comic book. He mixes acrylic, latex and spray paint.

It shouldn’t come together but it does, and in a way that is mesmerizing. Rodriguez-Warner is in complete control of this jumble. He draws you inside his large-scale objects by adding the illusion of depth and alternating perspectives. This is achieved by using wood stain to draw shadows around select, individual images and by physically carving into surfaces.

Like any well-made trompe l’oeil painting, you try to make sense of it, to discern front from back or construct a logical scene, but here you can’t; the artist stays one step ahead of you. Rodriguez-Warner puts what feels like an endless amount of work into his creations, but the payoff is that they are endlessly fascinating to look at.

The only disruption of the viewing journey comes from the question of originality. You do stop, again and again, to wonder who Rodriguez-Warner is referencing and whether they are getting the credit they deserve or being sliced and diced into toys he is playing with. Is it necessary to this work to borrow from others, or is it reckless?

It is one thing to take recognizable images and use them as a language to tell a new tale. It is another when you start taking the practices of other cultures and riffing on them as if they are up for grabs to anyone. Cultural appropriation has become a suspect practice these days, though it is hard to define — the subject of endless essays often in disagreement. How do you separate an homage from a heist?

But lines have been crossed, mostly through the appropriation of black culture by whites — Elvis’ rhythm and blues, Iggy Azalea’s raps, Kim Kardashian’s cornrow hairstyles. How does that connect to a Denver artist, who touts an explicit Latin-American heritage in his bio, using images from 17th century “ukiyo-e” prints — important historical  treasures in traditional Japanese art — in objects that he calls his own?

Scaling down the master works of a foreign culture to clip art feels painfully reductive, though not necessarily wrong, and certainly not out of sync with the times. I don’t condemn Rodriguez-Warner; I just want him to be careful, respectful, aware. I want all of us to be wary.

Or maybe that’s not in the service of authentic creativity. Maybe caution is actually the enemy of art.

Richard Hamilton, the pop pioneer and a favorite of mine, put it this way: “People don’t seem to understand that an artist is free to do whatever he wants, and I’ve always relished that possibility. I do whatever I feel like.”

Diego Rodriguez-Warner‘s “Honestly Lying” continues through May 13 at the MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. Info at 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.

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