The George Adams Gallery (38 Walker St., NYC) begins 2023 with an exhibition of paintings by the late Puerto Rican artist Arnaldo Roche Rabell (1955-2018), whom the gallery represented for many years, beginning in 1990. The current exhibition, “Dualidades,” is a survey of Roche’s paintings dating from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s.
These monumental works showcase an artist at the height of his abilities, grappling with existential questions about identity. Whether the uneasy relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, his own mixed-race heritage or personal connections to mental illness, Roche parses these facets of his self through densely layered canvases.
Roche Rabell was born and raised in Puerto Rico but went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, earning his MFA in 1984. After graduating, he continued to split his time between his home country and adopted city, a duality that echoes through his paintings. While in school he developed a technique of pulling impressions through the canvas from the bodies of his models or making prints directly from his own paint-covered body.
On top of these ghostly forms, thick layers of paint hold imprints of objects pressed into the surface, then carved away to create intricate and vibrant textures. In many ways his paintings present as self-portraits – Roche’s first serious investigations were literally so, but the approach he subsequently took moves through allegory and psychology to capture a richer and more nuanced exploration of the self. The expressionistic bodies and mask-like faces which appear in many of his paintings speak to the complexities of Roche’s own lived reality, besides the broader theme of the Puerto Rican identity that is a constant throughout.
Other symbology makes frequent appearances: the abundant tropical vegetation of his childhood home in Vega Alta, the delicate lace fabric made by Puerto Rican craftspeople, Christian iconography, the Chicago skyline and the landmarks of Washington, D.C. He weaves together these varied pieces into enigmatic and hauntingly beautiful paintings that reveal themselves one layer at a time.
Portraits are at the core of Roche’s work; whether of himself or others, they act as vehicles to express the contradictions he attempts to parse through his paintings. From the early ‘90s on, these faces were gradually subsumed by thickets of thorns, leaves, sticks and feathers, with only a pair of piercing eyes remaining. Several such paintings are included in the present exhibition, each demonstrating the variable aspects of Roche’s technique and subject. While lacking any identifying features, they should be understood as versions of the artist, “acting out compulsions,” as noted by critic Enrique Garcia Gutierrez. These “compulsions” are reflected in the tactile nature of Roche’s techniques, a form of physical painting in which the subject intercedes directly with the surface. Marks are incisions, textures reveal themselves through bas-relief and volumes appear as contours in the paint itself.
One of his more evocative paintings, The Subconscious Knows How to Kill his Son (1993), features a gash of a mouth with jagged teeth holds the body of man, supine. As the title suggests, the figure is one aspect of the self – the artist – in danger of being consumed by his innermost thoughts. Similarly, in Vegetales II (1992), a face emerges from a profusion of tropical plants; the dense foliage represents the natural beauty of Puerto Rico, in contrast to the silhouette of the Sears tower, a sleek manifestation of Chicago, that is visible in the background.
Such deeply personal references appear in other paintings as well – the skyline in Aqui y Alla (1989), is Chicago’s as well, the struggling figures in the foreground rubbings from the same model in various poses. Roche has explained this kind of multiplication as being “about sharing the struggle between the model and the artist that happens in creating the picture. I want to serve the model, not just use the person.”
Yet the “here and now” of the painting, with its dark expanse of water, obliquely references the kind of political content that would increasingly appear in his paintings in the mid to late ‘90s. A 1994 series utilized an image of a Trojan horse, as seen in Chicago: The Horse is In (1994), to address the broader issue of the US-Puerto Rico relationship beyond the confines of the individual. In this instance, the horse is representative of the growing Latin populations in American cities like Chicago, a kind of reverse colonization in which national pride and identity (seen in the lace accents on the framing curtain) are stronger than the diminutive US Capitol Building visible in the background.
Cultural and racial tensions lie at the heart of Roche’s paintings and are synonymous with his lived experience. For instance, the two figures that form the face in Peek-A-Boo (1991), can be read as black and white, their clasped hands an indication of harmony between races. Roche identified as mestizaje and had both African and Latino heritage himself. I Want to Die as a Negro (1993), layers these selves, drawing the face of a Benin ruler over his own, two pairs of fists raised in triumph.
During his lifetime, Arnaldo Roche Rabell was the subject of several museum survey exhibitions, including at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, Mexico in 1993, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, San Juan in 1994, the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City in 1995, the Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia in 1997, and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas, Venezuela in 1998.
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