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Arnaldo Roche Rabell

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jan 12, 2005
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Arnaldo Roche-Rabell
Interviewer: Mercedes Lizcano

LatinArt:  You began by studying architecture, but later began studying fine arts at the Chicago Arts Institute. What brought about your change of direction?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  The change was no surprise. From the beginning I showed a natural inclination towards drawing and painting. At the Escuela Superior Luchetti, the Puerto Rican artist Lope Max Dí¬≠az helped me develop what he classified as "natural talent". I later enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture.

I abandoned architecture school for several reasons. It was a highly-disciplined program but I wanted to continue drawing, painting and taking part in art exhibitions. Some of my instructors, such as Antonio Torres Martino, kept joking that I should abandon architecture because I was really a "painter". I decided to take a year off to clarify and reorganize my ideas. A series of dreams combined with the conviction that God was with me led me to apply to and enter the Art Institute of Chicago.

LatinArt:  What has influenced your work and your way of thinking?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  I can mention expressionism, surrealism and even post-Colonialism as analytical frames with which I have been associated. At the same time, I must mention Chicago as one of my greatest influences. The figurative school of the eighties developed in me a respect for the social and urban egocentrism and naïf drama found in the Chicago collections. A city such as this with its energy and museums becomes the best possible education. I should also mention Art Institute historians such as Bob Loescher, my art teacher Ray Yoshida and drawing teacher Richard Keane as basic to my development.

LatinArt:  After your self-portrait stage you decided to change and began to use different painting techniques. Can you explain how you begin?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  Generally, I begin a picture by placing 3 or 4 layers of paint on a previously-prepared canvas. These layers are applied evenly one on top of the other, allowing several days to pass between each application. I evenly apply yellow, orange, red and then darker color oils such as blue, violet or green, and let them dry until they are ready to receive figurative elements that are rubbed into the painting from under the canvas, or the impression of leaves, laces or projections that show up in the foreground. The final result is an exploration of forms that exploit the expressive capacities of oil, and in which techniques as varied as sculpture, drawing and engraving form an essential part of these surfaces. I’ve become used to working around the picture on the floor. Whenever I have to take a rubbing of a body or object, I must loosen the canvas completely from its frame and stretch it while covered by multiple layers of oil paint, an average minimum of 5 times for each picture before it is finished. These encounters take from one to three hours, with the usual interruptions.

In the case of a model, the individual has to be able to breathe comfortably underneath the canvas, while I have to maintain a spontaneous automatism, paying tribute in this way to the inherent beauty of a body full of life, or the rendering of inanimate objects accompanying it.

How can I take a rubbing of my 8-year old niece next to a cow which was run over and had a rubbing taken 2 days before, in order to call attention to the problem of "telarquia" in Puerto Rico? This gesture also points to the premature sexual development children sustain due to eating food contaminated by hormones. This is all part of my process. On another occasion I will arrive at the house of a good friend and tell him that everything in that space must be rubbed and traced, including his body, in order for us to laugh at that "commemorative" moment of our existence ten years later. In a related way, how do you tell your mother that you will come from Chicago to paint her a second skin in order to take away her pain as a woman and as a mother. These activities reflect a need to establish a rapport with my environment that has always characterized my life. I live intensely in search of the physical and psychological life of others. In this world created on canvas everything must leave its mark.

LatinArt:  How and when did Van Gogh’s images become part of your work?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  Vincent Van Gogh made an impression on my life when I saw his work at the Chicago Art Institute Museum. While I was doing my self-portraits at the Institute in 1982, my brother Felix died. Van Gogh appears during the decades of the eighties and nineties in works such as Quiñientos años sin una oreja (1989), but it was in 2000 that a re-encounter took place with the pain and the loss of my brother. Because of his closeness to the creative world Vincent became a bridge between my brother and me. In any case, there are no letters in the story between my brother and I, nor am I Theo ...and what the images suggest are fictitious and fabricated encounters.

The intention was not to heal the wound, but to touch it...wounds of that kind are never healed, and the act of making public what had not been openly expressed is extremely painful. To re-establish links with a deceased loved one became a necessity.

LatinArt:  Your work reveals a strong interest in dreams and pain. It seems to work on a very unconscious level.

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  I could not tell you whether part of my conscious or unconscious comes to life in these processes. I think of the idea for a work for months beforehand, it is in the physical act of painting that the action of my work ratifies the urgency of my ideas, connecting all the actual elements I rub, print or project on the canvas. That is when the subconscious is released, materializing itself through digging, pasting and tracing.

I can tell you that Fraternos was generated by the physical force of melancholy and pain. Without romanticizing my situation, there are too many things I would like to experiment with through painting, even though I have no doubt I am marked for pain. That is how I see myself when confronted by tragedy, as something spontaneous, as a need that can be shared through images.

LatinArt:  Your latest works, La naturaleza tiene que perdonar a los dementes (Nature Must Pardon the Insane, 2003) or Sin semillas, Quien va a dar la cara al sol? (Without Seeds, Who Will Face the Sun, 2003) show tenderness while being violent at the same time. Can you talk about this duality?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  If some tenderness or compassion flowers on the surface after attacking the physical world, I have no doubt that I’m letting myself be seen ... I have always thought that my subconscious side is closer to God than my conscious side. Tenderness cannot be feigned, nor is love abandoned to thoughts and always wants to manifest itself in matter, even in an inanimate object. My acts of painting have to be justified; by clear and positive thoughts, an idea or a simple sharp, precise comment. I cannot work surrounded by negative forces, hate or resentment. By this I tell you that I am not always ready to work with a model right away. There must be a sort of psychological preparation for that step.

If some anguish is seen amongst so much physical activity in my work...then one could read that as tenderness in a hostile world.

LatinArt:  At one point your paintings spoke assertively of a certain political awareness from a personal viewpoint, as in Buscando el norte (Searching for the North, 1991) or Eclipse total del sol (Total Eclipse of the Sun, 1993). Works spoke of being Puerto Rican, speaking Spanish, feeling Latin American yet holding a U.S. passport. Can you talk about this period in your work?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  Being Puerto Rican is exactly that: to live a dichotomy with our political and cultural reality. Fortunately, we do not have a dictatorship, nor are we governed by a military junta. Our political situation opens up endless possibilities and opportunities for us. I form part of a Caribbean and Latin reality in the United States. At this time the Puerto Rican vote is extremely important on the Latin American agenda.

I have the advantage of seeing the island from the Anglo Saxon viewpoint and vice versa...I can comment on what it is like to live like a Latin American within the United States: the complexity of its society, of its institutions, together with its immense cultural diversity. I have been able to take advantage of my socio-political reality living both in Puerto Rico and in the city of Chicago. We are an active society and one with an eager desire to define our future and thus be able to take an active part in the development of the Caribbean and of Latin America as a whole. Finally, I can assure you that I am extremely proud of my people and of my country.

LatinArt:  What are you working on currently?

Arnaldo Roche Rabell:  I can tell you about several ideas that I’ll soon begin working on. For the past 30 years there has been a worldwide movement for the preservation of natural resources. It’s increasingly on the agenda of many countries and international agencies. This idea has made itself evident in the production of images, showing Nature as something fragile, in some cases stripped of its violence.

I would like to reexamine the expressive and violent aspects of Nature and the "irrationality" of humans, returning to a time characterized by the instinct for preservation. To this exploration of Nature you can add my concerns with Puerto Rico.

For better or worse, this island has survived a relationship with the United States for over 100 years. We believe many things about ourselves, some of which are not true. We have convinced ourselves that we must consume everything, which assures us that we will cease "to be an island".

For decades we have been the "promised land" for many Latin Americans and Caribbean natives who are looking for the American dream, although our surface area is only 100 by 35 miles. There is much to talk about here concerning the Caribbean reality. We are an island stuck between two hemispheres. Puerto Rico is not Cuba, we are not the product of a revolution. We do not exist within the periphery of the kingdom but are merely one of its frontiers. For the moment I can only restate my desire to show Puerto Rico associated with a somewhat utopian "natural" world full of energy, miracles and ideas. Who can I place under the canvas to speak of those who live there?

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