Pre-Portrait of an Artist

"Bert Rodriguez: A Pre-Career Retrospective"

As heir to the ideological battles of the late Nineteenth Century, the avant-gardists hoped to make art sovereign by ridding it of the evils of capitalist consumerism. Once outside those laws, art truly would liberate mankind, just as Schiller had exhorted in his letters, On the Aesthetic Education of Man. It didn't work. Instead, as the Twentieth Century forged on, the avant-garde, while simultaneously demonizing the market, profited from it.

The ideological allegiance to strict artistic autonomy combined with a "will to purity" took artists away from a valid production process, making art as exchange unacceptably bourgeois. The alleged beneficiaries of this art, the proletariat, remained at best perplexed before the experiment, while the bourgeoisie took in the movement and its fashionably scandalous sheath. The latter was in a better position to enjoy art than the former, something artists failed to see.

Beginning in the 1950s, the avant-garde became a hot commodity. Not commendable, particularly for a zealous movement whose political credo was to enlighten the world, but most twentieth-century artists got caught up in it. Its effect, even today, has not subsided.

A gallery looks back on a noncareer
Bert Rodriguez
A gallery looks back on a noncareer

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On view through March 1. Call 305-237-3696.
MDCC Centre Gallery, 300 NE 2nd Ave, 3rd flr.

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Bert Rodriguez: A Pre-Career Retrospective, at Miami-Dade Community College's Centre Gallery, is a play, or variation, on this theme. It addresses the troubled dichotomy of the artist and human being immersed in the contradictions of the global economy. Rodriguez is a young local, from a new generation of Miami artists who are making fresh and interesting art. The show is put together by Goran Tomcic, a poet and curator from Croatia, now in charge of MDCC's gallery. Tomcic also has assembled notable exhibitions of other locals, such as Naomi Fisher and Luis Gispert.

Bert Rodriguez feels at home in conceptual territory, in irony and double-entendre, beginning with the show's title: pre-career retrospective. Although the exhibition follows the mode of today's gallery exhibits (objects prominently displayed with descriptive wall captions and accompanied by a printed catalogue), behind the convention Rodriguez is poking fun at his own endeavor. He displays himself as an established artist who shows his past work. Greeting the visitor is a big photograph of Rodriguez on the beach, looking at the horizon -- looking back at his career. Yet,because this is the artist's first-ever solo, all he can really do is show us his own life as retrospective.

So Rodriguez takes us through a pictorial/biographical excursion. He reveals his "career" as a human being on his way to become a young artist with a pre-career. Hence we are introduced to a child's drawings and projects at preschool, such as Pink and Black, Cuban Flag, and Snowman, made when he was four years old. Is this art? Some may say, "My child can do that." Obviously this is not Rodriguez's explicit intention. Not yet anyway. Later, as the child becomes the artist with a pre-career (with the help of captions written by the artist himself), one can better guess at his self-referential musings. In any case this kind of exposure game is provoking.

Childhood Companion is a toilet brush on a pedestal, signed "Rodriguez" on the red-plastic handle. Eighty-three years of separation, yet still this evokes Marcel Duchamp's famous ready-made, which also dealt with liquid human waste. Rodriguez pays tribute to the urinal signed "R. Mutt," sent to the first 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. It was here that "nonart" was conceived as art for the first time.

In the caption Rodriguez explains how the brush had a use in his house, until it disappeared, which is when he decided to appropriate it. "This is Rodriguez's first and only unadulterated ready-made object," reads the inscription. Nevertheless a ready-made is by definition unadulterated. Maybe the redundancy can be seen as an unconscious disclaimer. It also points out a possible chink in Rodriguez's ideological and conceptual armor.

Duchamp's ready-mades ended up as worshiped commodities in the art market. Rodriguez's distinction between ready-made and unadulterated is a slip to salvage his brush (creation) from a fate similar to that of Duchamp's. He may inadvertently assume if the old Dadaist's nonart ended as goods, then his unadulterated nonart can escape such a fate and save the day. We don't see a ready-made, but instead an unadulterated ready-made. But how unadulterated can an object remain after it's signed? Signatures are obvious acts of ownership and authorship. (As for Duchamp, a kind of Socrates of the art world, he bewildered many when he stopped making art in 1923 to play chess and be his witty self. He had understood the paradox of art's position in the modern world, and his silence remains a powerful inspiration to many artists to this day.)

Soap(Self-Portrait) is a Plexiglas box containing some of Rodriguez's most-loved childhood objects. A long caption explains these contents were stored in an original cardboard box, now lost. The artist then decided to permanently keep the objects "in a Plexiglas copy of the former container." The reconstruction of one's childhood is not without contradictions. Someone trying to understand Rodriguez's history may take issue with his use of "copy," in the caption. What kind of similarity is there between this Plexiglas copy and the old cardboard box in his closet? Rodriguez's attempt at self-reconstruction (for the sake of exhibiting a pre-career) may strain authenticity; the tension arises from how one can rearrange a past so that it becomes not only a meaningful concept, but also a meaningful history.

An interesting work is What a Lovely Piece on the Wall, a pencil drawing on paper that recounts one of Rodriguez's school projects. It shows a section of a wall containing a fire hose and glass window. The caption reads: "During a school trip to Miami Art Museum all the students, including Rodriguez, were asked to make a drawing of their favorite artwork. Rodriguez chose to draw the only object in the museum which was not considered art."

Rodriguez is quite successful with succinctness, with words and objects working together. For example Modern Day Socrates, a pencil drawing on paper depicting a huge, 100-mg Prozac tablet donning an olive wreath, leaning against a tree trunk. It's fun and fresh. In Complementary Chess, the rules of the game have been altered on an arbitrarily redesigned board, the pieces reduced to pawns and towers. Untitled Toilet, a two-piece sequence, uses the top view of the toilet as a picture frame. It reads, "your picture here." And there's the minimal The Ties That Bind, a telephone wrapped in white linen.

The show closes with a video of scenes from Rodriguez's private life, showing us the artist as a newborn in the hospital and as a toddler with his mom and dad. Next to it on a white wall is Rodriguez's bigger-than-life signature, in the ostentatious style of someone who is at the pinnacle of his career. The effect is strong and conflicting. In spite of the difficult subject involved (one's own life, which has the potential to be loaded with self-importance), Rodriguez's "A Pre-Career Retrospective" manages to pack humor, openness, and a sense of conceptual redemption into an accessible show.

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