Visiting several dozen countries, thanks to a travel grant, Seattle artist George Rodriguez found himself thinking about the way we can connect to others through the veil of differences. Upon his return, Rodriguez imagined himself as eleven alter egos, each radically different from one another in appearance, but all sharing one trait – the name George. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, reviews the resulting cast of characters, in both ceramic sculptures and drawings, currently on exhibit in Pioneer Square.
George Rodriguez is brilliant at surfaces, and his portrait exhibition at Foster White Gallery uses elaborate decorative effects as a running commentary on the ten cultural icons he portrays. The faces of the various characters in the show, all of whom share the name George (Washington, Bush, Curious, Burns, Saint, Jetson, etc.), are mostly treated in a straightforward, literal way. But once the artist ventures beyond the face, anything goes, and it is the hair, the accessories, and the surfaces that set each figure apart from the rest, and gives the show its aesthetic charge.
Like Arneson, Rodriguez uses mega-doses of humor to express his responses to the characters he portrays. Like Arneson, Rodriguez is a master craftsman, using clay to express an enormous variety of images and ideas. And like Arneson, Rodriguez uses his own visage as a jumping off point for a wide variety of artistic explorations.
In the current exhibition, the underlying concept of one person with multiple identities is perhaps the weakest link. Not that Rodriguez falls short of his mentor when he sets out to simply portray himself; all of the straight-ahead self-portraits are terrific, starting at the entrance to the show, where the artist has drawn himself directly on the wall as a sort of one-man welcoming committee. The vivid, life-sized ink drawing of Rodriguez is a none-too-subtle meditation on identity and artistic direction, where the artist ponders his next move, hand held thoughtfully to mouth, while staring at a hobo version of himself on the road, with a fill-in-the-blank face and a kit bag on a stick.
Another self-portrait appears around the corner, a larger-than-life bust of the artist as Chia Pet, a marvelous idea and a riff, one supposes, on having mildly curly hair (something the real novelty sculptures do a great job of imitating), not to mention being fertile with ideas. The ceramic, bemused Rodriguez sits on a pedestal, surveying his handwork around him, while flattened blossoms form his beard, eyebrows, and mustache, and fully-erect, trumpet-shaped flowers sprout from his head in the guise of hair. Elsewhere, three dramatically various self-portrait drawings are lined up behind the gallery desk. In one, George appears as a sort of drunken, flower-child version of Che Guevara; in another, he is a tiny, doll-like figure at the center of a sort of floral interpretation of the American flag. The last drawing is the armature for the rest of the two-dimensional works in the show, a silk-screened self-portrait upon which every non-Rodriguez George is drawn as an overlay, more or less obliterating the original. The master image itself is a hoot, the artist looking sleepy-eyed and vaguely amused, waiting to be transformed into his various guises.
It is with the transformation that I have my biggest issue with the show. In his artist statement, Rodriguez writes that he can relate to the other Georges he portrays because of the “similarities that bring them together”, but his description of this connection sounds to me more like Kurt Vonnegut’s granfalloon, “a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless”.
Not that Rodriguez hasn’t given it the old college try; each ceramic portrait bust, like the drawings, starts in the studio with a realistic depiction of the artist, and is then pushed, pulled, and carved into one of the 10 Georges in the exhibit. But just as there obviously isn’t anything that George Bush and Boy George share in common other than a name, the finished sculptures don’t look or feel much like Rodriguez either; they are simply really cool portrait heads , however much the artist may identify with them, and in spite of the fact that they had his look to begin with. But the tension that might have happened if Rodriguez had kept more of himself in his portrayals has vanished in his earnest attempt to make them look like themselves.
Once we’ve stopped searching for deeper meanings and connections, we can enjoy the works on their own terms. I was particularly partial to the Technicolor bust of the funkadelic pop-star George Clinton, envisioned by Rodriguez as a sort of Post-Modern Medusa. Substituting a mass of writhing, multi-colored snakes for the singer’s own collection of outrageous wigs and dos is not only a reasonable interpretation; it also allows Rodriguez to show off his clay-molding chops, bringing the sausage like shapes covering Clinton’s head to seriously sensuous, even creepy, life. Clinton’s face, by contrast, is bland and finished with a white, monochromatic glaze; it’s his two pairs of shades and mop top that set the man apart. In the accompanying drawing Rodriguez uses a highly inventive series of graphic treatments to take the place of color in the depiction of the hair: stripes, checks, polka-dots.
Also a standout is the maniacal shouting head of the legendary and eccentric American ceramic artist George Ohr, a faithful copy of a famous turn-of-the-century photograph, except for the several dozen individually molded replicas of Ohr’s signature pots here substituting for hair, including pottery taking the place of Ohr’s famous mustache and beard; what snakes are for Clinton, pottery is for Ohr. Boy George looks both androgynous and otherworldly, with a smoky, charcoal-gray skin patina that allows his red lips to glow like embers. The same effect holds true in his hair, where the only color is provided by the odd red ribbon, hot amidst the black of his spaghetti-shaped dreadlocks. St. George does retain a vague resemblance to the artist, but more interesting is the faux-marble classical treat
ment, and the very dimensional floral red halo, cutting the head in half. Curious George is terminally cute with odd blue triangles brightening up his nubby brown fur.
There’s a sweetness and energy to the ensemble that’s charming, and we’re in awe of Rodriguez’s facility with his medium. But many of the depictions stay on the surface both literally and conceptually, and are at times predictable and even banal (George Burns). With his fascinating and various self-portraits, Rodriguez demonstrates that there’s a lot more in his toolbox than amusing celebrity busts.