Walking the Earth with Antuan Rodríguez

 

By Noel Smith

 

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

God’s Grandeur, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Antuan Rodríguez’s body of work across a range of media includes painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and public art. In his use of the readymade, which he often combines with handmade elements, he conflates the object and the human form and strives to involve the viewer in the subsequent dialogue. Among his recurring visual symbols are instruments of communication and sports, and common domestic articles including plumbing equipment, utensils for eating and food itself, and clothing including footwear.

 

Shoes figure often among Antuan’s recurring visual subjects. The shoe is an indispensable item of apparel that connects us to the ground and protects us from its dangers, and its wide array of designs and styles make everyday and extraordinary activities possible. Footwear can signal clan kinship, race, gender and sexuality, social and economic status. As a potent, often fetishized carrier of meaning in our culture, the shoe serves Antuan well in his art.

 

Metal casts of Oxford brogues, finished in a verdigris patina suggestive of official monuments, are mounted heel to heel in a six-foot column in Retannin’ Wall Street (2007, bronze, 6 x 2 x 2”). They depict the expensive kind of footgear worn by people working in high finance, who wield tremendous power over the world economy and thus over the lives of billions. The shoes spiral and spin around a central axis, like human vertebrae in an unforgiving wind. The allusion to thoughtlessness and fickleness in the actions of the wearers of these types of shoes is clear, and ultimately, the artist suggests, these actors are victims of themselves. In Mind Steps (2003, bronze, 13 x 12 x 5”), a pair of black bronze wingtips is impressive in its solid heft; a corporate type, a responsible and well-regarded pillar of the community, might wear them… but might object to the convoluted surfaces that appear to be brains, morphing on the toes of these worthy shoes. In a humorous way, the artist asks the wearer to think deeply of the consequences of his steps. In Construct (2011, mixed media, 10 x 9 x 4”) athletic shoes gaily spattered with bright paint seem poised to take off running. They are part of a project directed towards encouraging children in Haiti to play sports, activities the artist believes can help to lift the country out of its poverty and depression.

 

Common to these works and others, in addition to an exceptional level of craftsmanship, is a high degree of engagement with current social, humanitarian and environmental issues. Antuan was educated in his native Cuba, which stresses the importance of artists as contributing members of society. In addition to his formal visual arts training he worked in a variety of arenas, in cinema, television and theatre as set designer, graphic designer and director, and spent a period of time in Europe learning bronze casting in a foundry where he came in contact with artifacts from Nazi concentration camps. All of these experiences contribute to Antuan’s comfort as an artist in approaching multiple media, in searching for new and challenging forms, and in conceptualizing works that invite the viewer into a dialogue on issues that matter in the world today.

 

Antuan is in good company with his explorations of shoes as vehicles for his socially concerned art. Postimpressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh painted several lush canvases depicting humble, peasant-style shoes; his A Pair of Shoes (1886) sparked a spirited and famous discussion among philosophers Martin Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro and Jacques Derrida on the meaning of art. Surrealist Meret Oppenheim’s assemblage Ma gouvernante, My Nurse, mein Kindermädchen (1936), a pair of high heels trussed and served up like a turkey on a tray, presents disturbing erotic content and questions the role and treatment of women. In contemporary Cuban art, where political content and humor go hand in hand, artist Yoan Capote’s sculpture Casados I (2004) presents a scenario that explores, or explodes, the idea of marriage or perhaps political compromise: he joins a left women’s shoe and a right man’s shoe at the toes, stretches the leather in between like taffy, and leaves their pairs separate and marooned to the side. Los Carpinteros’ watercolor, print and sculpture series “Sandalia” depicts flip-flops with relief maps of Havana neighborhoods on their upper soles. Most notably Sandalias (2004), a pair of cast rubber sandals in size 13, is prickly with the raised profiles of buildings, and would conflate the city and the wearer in a sense of physical unity dissolving individual, collective and urban boundaries in a symbolic walk.

 

Antuan has also made shoes for symbolic walking, in an installation titled Harvest of Steps/Cosecha de Pasos (2005, mixed media, variable dimensions). His ready-mades in this case are slightly battered business style shoes (mostly men’s wingtips but also women’s sensible high heels) purchased in thrift and second-hand stores. The shoes, stuffed with fake greenery and real hay, are poised in pairs and march across the barren floor of the gallery. The Victorian Welsh poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, known for his early sensitivity to environmental issues, wrote in 1877 that “…the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” In a twenty-first century echo of these verses, Harvest of Steps mutely suggests humankind’s devastation of the earth and the not altogether beneficial harnessing of natural resources, result of both corporate and individual actions. In this work and others, Antuan asks us to join him in an imaginative questioning of our collective society and in a consideration of how our individual paths affect us all.

 

 

NOEL SMITH is Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art and Curator of Education for the Institute for Research in Art: Contemporary Art Museum and Graphicstudio (IRA) at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She also directs the USF Museum Studies Graduate Certificate program. In addition to teaching, she curates exhibitions for the USFCAM, and collaborates with artist projects at Graphicstudio. Smith has over twelve years experience working with artists and arts institutions of Cuba. For the IRA and with Corina Matamoros, she has co-curated LosCarpinteros: Inventar el mundo/Inventing the World (2005), Homing Devices (2007), and Carlos Garaicoa: La enmienda que hay en mí/Making Amends (2010). Other exhibitions include The Amazing and the Immutable (2004), and Werner Reiterer: Raw Loop (2008). She is currently organizing a version of Open Score, an exhibition featured at the 11th Havana Bienal. Smith was formerly Acting Director of the USF Institute for Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, and is a literary translator.

 

Bio: Noel Smith

NOEL SMITH is Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art and Curator of Education for the Institute for Research in Art: Contemporary Art Museum and Graphicstudio (IRA) at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She also directs the USF Museum Studies Graduate Certificate program. In addition to teaching, she curates exhibitions for the USFCAM, and collaborates with artist projects at Graphicstudio. Smith has over twelve years experience working with artists and arts institutions of Cuba. For the IRA and with Corina Matamoros, she has co-curated LosCarpinteros: Inventar el mundo/Inventing the World (2005), Homing Devices (2007), and Carlos Garaicoa: La enmienda que hay en mí/Making Amends (2010). Other exhibitions include The Amazing and the Immutable (2004), and Werner Reiterer: Raw Loop (2008). She is currently organizing a version of Open Score, an exhibition featured at the 11th Havana Bienal. Smith was formerly Acting Director of the USF Institute for Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, and is a literary translator.