"Black Gold": Rolando Peña Examines Humanity Through a Crude-Oil Lens

Crude oil seems like an unlikely inspiration for an unearthly experience — until you see it as Rolando Peña does. In his video Sacred Fire, computer-generated barrels rise, fall, stack, and shatter, accompanied by eerie audio from outer space, courtesy of NASA. For Peña, the dazzling display evokes the cosmic power of the Big Bang or a Hopi Indian doomsday prophecy.

“I have the Big Bang always in my head,” he says. And he intends for his exhibit“Black Gold” — opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami — to convey some big ideas.

As Peña strides through the cavernous interior of the museum a week before opening day, his outsize enthusiasm seems as capable of filling the space as his installations. He greets the first room like an old friend, gesturing to the places where images of golden oil barrels will hang.

The art isn’t here yet, but Peña doesn’t seem the type to second-guess himself on arrangement. He has been putting on shows for a half-century, and since beginning work on his signature subject in the 1980s, the Venezuelan artist has explored oil through disparate approaches — images, sculptures, videos, and performances. You could say he has refined his work.

In any case, he’s excited about the details of his latest take on petroleum, but even more so about the big picture of what he’s trying to share: an invitation to strive for a more empathetic world.

“We have to really open ourselves and try to understand the other,” he says. “We have to reach a point that we really understand... that we are human, that we have to respect every human being.”

It’s a lofty aspiration, but Peña believes people can achieve it. His estimation of the power of ambition is evident in his work, which often depicts oil as a force of nature bent to human will. At exhibitions around the world, he has stacked barrels into monumental monoliths and tied oil to scientific breakthroughs such as general relativity, dark energy, and the Higgs boson.

Like Einstein’s E=MC², oil has fueled both progress and destruction. There’s plenty of evil nowadays that’s connected to oil to some degree — Middle Eastern wars, environmental damage, economic struggles, and political unrest in Venezuela. Peña notes oil’s role in modern conflicts, but he says his perspective on petroleum has evolved as he has come to recognize it as a tool, not an actor.

“In the beginning... I was really very angry about crude oil because [of] all the ecological disasters made with oil,” he says. “Of course... crude oil didn’t do that. It’s us that do that.”

Now his feelings on the topic, though still “love-and-hate,” are “more mellow.”

It’s important to be aware of changes like that, he says. And in the interest of introspection and transparency, he’s laying out a visual diary of more than 300 photos spanning 70 years of his life, back to his childhood in the 1940s.

“I want people to know that you can be very sophisticated doing these types of installations... but at the same time you are arriving, you’re coming from something simpler,” he says.

Peña arrived in the art world long ago — and set up shop. He helped pioneer the multimedia format in Venezuela in the '60s; collaborated with Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Timothy Leary; and has put on shows in Caracas, New York, Paris, Seoul, Washington, Rome, and Madrid. His photos trace his growth from a 6-year-old peeing in front of an oil-pump jack at Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo in 1946 to the veteran exhibitor he is today.

He hopes his life story — artistically remarkable but also authentically human, with friends, loved ones, and funny faces — will be another reminder of the experiences and feelings we all share.

“Art is personal, it’s intimate, but at the same time it’s open,” he says. And like life, it keeps moving forward.

“The next time that I do [the photo diary], maybe 2020, it’s going to be different because there’s going to be a photo from this exhibition.”

“Black Gold”
September 15 through November 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami. Museum admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors, and free for MOCA members, North Miami residents with ID, and some others. A reception with Peña will be held September 22 at 7 p.m.; admission costs $10 or is free for members and North Miami residents. RSVP for the reception by calling 305-893-6211 or visiting