Norberto "Bert" Rodriguez is an artist with a knack for applying the headlock. His works are relentlessly clever, crow-barring the protective layer off of the mundane, exposing and altering the muck underneath. Spectators encountering his work often walk away reeling, as if given the business, feeling conned instead. His stuff can be a hard swallow, but he's arguably making some of the most interesting and challenging statements in town.
Whether it's the hammer-drop on the cult of ego in One Man V.I.P. , a crushing criticism on the artifice of art practice in How God Makes Snakes, or the incisive intervention into the structure of the gallery system in Where My Eyes Meet You V. II, Rodriguez has a deft hand for making the unseen manifest.
I recently caught up with the unassuming, straight-shooting Rodriguez, voted by Miami New Times as this year's Best Local Artist, to talk about his work, the local scene, and "Something," currently on view at Locust Projects, where he collaborated with some friends on the four-person exhibit.
Locust Projects, 105 NW 23rd St, Miami; 305-576-8570
Through August 19. Summer hours by appointment
During a recent visit to Locust, free from the distractions of opening night and with the gallery all to myself, I could see why the show might go over people's heads. Also including work by Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, Tom Scicluna, and Frances Trombly, "Something" is one of the most thought-provoking and controversial offerings I've seen at Locust in a while.
The starkly minimalist exhibit featuring a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mirror; a welcome mat; a pane of glass propped against a drinking glass leaning on the mirror; and, at eye level, a razor-cut line in the gallery's sheet-rock walls was all there was to see.
With a scissor ladder in the middle of the space and an extension cord coiled underneath it (actually not part of the exhibit), the space looked more like a raw dance studio than a gallery.
But that's the point, Rodriguez explains. "All of us have been included in group shows as the token conceptual geeks during our careers," he says. "We talked about how the works would play off each other. It's pretty esoteric visually, but I was happy how it all seemed to disappear and divert attention from the art object. It forces you to pull away and hopefully experience the show as a contrast to a lot of the visual clutter you see in a lot of shows today." His Where My Eyes Meet You V. II, slicing across Locust's walls with a surgeon's precision, drives the point home with unarguable simplicity.
Speaking with the artist at his studio above a corner bodega and beauty parlor on Biscayne Boulevard, I saw one of his recent works hanging over his couch. It depicted God rolling a snake from a block of clay. I found it a metaphor for some of the virulent commentary on local art blogs regarding his current show.
You can inhale a whiff of the dustup at www.thenextfewhours.com, where hardline modernist pisspokes tried to cornhole Rodriguez with some guff about "fractal wrongness," whatever the crap that is.
Rodriguez laughed it off but mentioned Miami can be provincial, pointing to the paint-squandering, canvas-harming varmints who crawled out of the woodwork to trash his stuff sight unseen.
"Some of these people are stuck in some academic bubble like slaves. It's like they see themselves as keepers of culture or art history somehow and can't bring themselves to grow or allow others to move on. I can't say what art is, nor am I willing to get caught up in the modernist-versus-postmodernist thing. But can anyone describe what art is really? To attempt to seems crazy."
The 31-year old Rodriguez, a New World grad and one of the up-and-comers in the Fredric Snitzer Gallery stable, has always approached his creative anxieties from left field.
Studying music as a youngster, he tinkered with the clarinet, oboe, saxophone, piano, and guitar, which he still plays.
Not until he was in his teens did he begin taking art seriously; for one New World class he scored an electronic "water music" piece recording people drinking water from a glass with their throats wired for sound.
"I lined them up with mikes held to their necks and acted like a conductor cueing them when to swallow. Basically I've always enjoyed fucking with people's heads."
Even though Rodriguez won LegalArt's emerging artists grant earlier this year, and has broken into the ranks of those actually earning a living from art, his ego seems unfazed.
"I'm not at that point like some others here where collectors buy stuff before seeing it because of a name, but I'm covering my bills and the work is getting out there and that's great."
Last year for a show at I/O, he knocked the starch out of scenester posers via typical tongue-in-cheek verve. Rodriguez set up a one-man VIP section inside the club and hired a security guard to keep the riffraff out during the event.
"It had a small bench, a table, the velvet ropes, and all. I made VIP badges and went around the club asking people if they wanted to sit in the VIP section like the promoters do. Once they were isolated inside the space in the middle of the bustling club, they became the object of these awkward glances, but it was fucking incredible how many people got in line for it. One girl ended up freaking out and called a friend in the club on her cell." The bar tab for Rodriguez's solitary confinement of VIPs ran nearly $400.
If you wonder how he keeps his lights on at home and his car gassed up, Rodriguez makes pieces he calls "artifacts," selling out some of his shows, while some of his works have ended up at MoCA, in the Rubell Family Collection, and in Kansas City's Kemper Museum.
His solo "The Gifts I Could Never Give You" at Snitzer was picked clean during Art Basel in 2004. The exhibit literally consisted of gifts he had created for yet never delivered to former girlfriends. It also featured a group of mariachis going to town with a medley of Cure and Magnetic Fields tunes Rodriguez had taught them.
His neon pieces are popular with collectors, and one work in particular, A Friendly Reminder, in which the phrase "DEATH ... it's closer than you think" appears, spurred Rodriguez to create another piece with the help of his dealer.
While photographing the original work as it hung in the gallery, Rodriguez asked an ailing Snitzer if he would don a sheet and pose under the neon like a ghost or the grim reaper. "Fred and I have been friends long before I started working with the gallery. He had had a scare and was taking inventory of what's important in life, yet put the sheet over his head when I asked him to."
The resulting image evokes how Rodriguez's art-making process embraces nearly everything he experiences in his daily life, and how the gear box in his noggin is always churning.
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"My head is always on fire. When I'm making art and, it's a constant process for me, I can't understand how some can be satisfied surviving with self-imposed limitations. The only place I can function well in is in the art world," he says. "I'm just some dude who has to make stuff or I'd go nuts."
He ain't no Duchamp, and rolls his peepers at comparisons, but Rodriguez might be among a rare breed who can get away with pulling rabbits out of their ass and calling it art. And that's a beautiful thing.
"I can get into endless justifiers when talking about what I do, but that's bullshit," he adds with a grin.