Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s recent exhibition Horror Vacui offers a look beyond the immediate disarray and confusion in which we find ourselves.
November 14, 2020–January 16, 2021
Leon Gallery, Denver
Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s paintings lure viewers into the illusion of movement through trompe l’oeil techniques and corporeal fragmentation. In doing so, the artist generates the appearance of motion through a vortex of overlapping limbs and contorted figuration. Horror Vacui, his most recent body of work exhibited at Leon Gallery, is no exception. Punctuated by the expansive White Painting, Rodriguez-Warner’s work invokes velocity, speed, and depth on an otherwise flat, inert surface.
Leon’s executive director Eric Nord says as much in a gallery statement, emphasizing the artworks’ dynamism and unmistakable energy. Artistic director Eric Dallimore reinforces these sentiments when commenting on the twists and turns of the artist’s human forms and their subsequent ability to move an audience. Rodriguez-Warner also alludes to faux-motion in his artist statement, noting that while he “didn’t leave the house for the first three” months of the pandemic, he still managed to “pace a rut in [his] backyard.” The physical trace of his repetitive movements accentuates that, in actuality, he traveled nowhere.
Rodriguez-Warner’s work invokes velocity, speed, and depth on an otherwise flat, inert surface.
Rather than pace a critical rut in well-documented ideas regarding illusion, examining another concept salient to Horror Vacui would prove more fruitful; that concept is mess. Rodriguez-Warner opens his artist statement with the admission that “This show is a bit of a mess,” which addresses the fact that it consists of works not fully realized. The show, instead, comprises various “attempts” made from materials immediately available to the artist: “scraps of plywood and drywall, crayons, pencil and spray paint, [and] a diminishing supply of acrylic paint.” With the exception of White Painting, this ad hoc materiality resulted in “smaller, more intimate pieces.”
While Rodriguez-Warner concludes his artist statement with an apology (“this is far less than you deserve, and for that, I apologize”), it reads as a coy dodge. In fact, the artist transformed Leon into an approximation of his studio, mess and all. In doing so, he covered the gallery floor with tarps and masking tape. A worn, vinyl couch and house plants from his workspace were transported to the gallery. Sandpaper, crumbled drywall, plywood chips, contact paper, paint cans, sandbags, art books, notebook scraps, mason jars, a step stool, and a five-gallon bucket filled with c-clamps littered the gallery space. Likewise, no less than sixty-four “attempts” clutter the gallery, oftentimes bunched together and adhered to the walls with painter’s tape. The detritus, bric-a-brac, and furnishings, then, simulate the mess produced from the act of creation. The artist isn’t apologizing for this mess; he is re-creating and championing it.
Why would an artist known for his technical precision embrace an aesthetic of mess? Most people would agree that our world is currently in a state of disorder. Whether medical, social, or economic, our way of life has come undone by the effects of COVID-19. A youth movement promoting social and racial justice has sought to dismantle long-standing American institutions rooted in white supremacy through public protests that have left many urban areas in a state of disarray. And, most recently, a mob of domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol Building in a dangerous attempt to undermine democracy. In turn, our government has either fomented hostile division or ineffectually offered canned platitudes.
What Rodriguez-Warner’s mess gives us, perhaps, is a look beyond the immediate disarray and confusion in which we find ourselves. Rather than a cause for lament, it prompts critical questions such as: What can we make of mess? How does creative expression thrive upon or derive from mess? How is creativity complicit with mess? How do we move into, around, and out of mess? What types of movements create mess? What are the various relationships between motion and mess? How can mess be made to serve us? Finally, who benefits from mess, and how can we use that knowledge to alter our understanding of the world around us? By tacitly posing these questions, Horror Vacui challenged its audience to consider mess as an operative tool and an affirmative gesture, rather than a pejorative concept or shambolic aesthetic.