Provocative Portraits: Lessons in Art and Activism by Shellyne Rodriguez

Shellyne Rodriguez, “Mal de Ojo,” 2016

This June, the Jewish Museum welcomes Shellyne Rodriguez to lead the latest in its ongoing series of contemporary artist-led studio workshops. Inspired by the exhibition Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, the unconventional self-portraiture workshop Provocative Portraits will encourage participants to learn new techniques for making art in mixed-media while exploring artist Florine Stettheimer’s fierce feminine aesthetics and Rodriguez’s daring attention to political subject matter.

An artist and activist from the South Bronx, Rodriguez centers her work on strategies of survival and its varied malleable forms. Her practice reimagines these strategies as gestures, narratives, objects, and pictures using a variety of sources and mediums. Rodriguez describes her activism as a social responsibility connected to her artistic practice, rooted in hip hop culture and decolonization.

We sat down with Rodriguez to discuss her thoughts about Stettheimer’s unapologetic (and privileged) perspective, the importance of subversion and freedom in Rodriguez’s teaching, and what participants can look forward to in her upcoming class at the Jewish Museum.

Shellyne Rodriguez, “Mirage II,” 2016

Tell us a bit about your studio practice. What have you been working on recently?

I spent last year working heavily with clay; I made a series of ceramic reliefs. I was working mostly from collages I had created and from found photographs. I wanted to bring these flat 2D images into space without abandoning the pictorial. Now my studio is covered in large-scale mixed-media works on paper. I really couldn’t tell you where one ends and the other begins. In some ways they are like collage murals that can be put together in assorted ways. Between these two projects I spent some time lending my creative abilities to political, social justice work. The disappearance of space is a major concern in our lives — receding square footage of the overpriced cubicles in the shared apartments we are forced to live in. As artists, we are always contemplating space, whether it be pictorial space, or the way a sculpture or a dancer occupies a room or a stage. It’s imperative that we artists turn our gaze away from our studios and lend our abilities to push back against the constriction of the little freedom that remains.

You are from New York City and you reference the South Bronx specifically in your artist statement. What role does the neighborhood play in your work and the choices you make as an artist?

Shellyne Rodriguez, “Deity,” 2012

My perspective in the world comes from my lived experience. My work is not about the Bronx, but it is the place where I live presently, and it is the place where I grew up. Many of the notions I’m trying to break open in my work occur in this microcosm. This is where people live and die, struggle, fail, and survive. The particularities of these lives, which I see as so interconnected to my own, are my interest. I’m literally scraping up the sidewalk con toda su risas y penas (with all of its laughter and sorrow) and putting it in the work, both literally and figuratively speaking. Ultimately, my work is what I consider a broke baroque, in the sense that it doesn’t shy away from wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s emotive, it’s referencing those timeless existential feelings about life and suffering. When it comes to the people of the Bronx it becomes a conversation about indignant survival and ingenuity. These are profoundly decolonial gestures which I also try to capture in my work, and in my lifetime has been the most visible in hip hop culture, literally born from the ashes of the Bronx on fire.

Florine Stettheimer was born in Rochester, New York and also spent much of her adult life in New York City. Many of her paintings are satirical portraits that engage in social commentary from a feminist perspective, but also one that comes out of a wealthy and privileged background. Do you find any connections between the themes you explore in your work and hers?

I admire Florine’s work formally. I think she was a badass woman who was unapologetic in her style and was true to her vision. But we are worlds apart. What stuck out to me most while walking through the show was how insulated she was in her spaces. These very elite spaces are closed off, behind the velvet rope and the doorman, hovering over us in one of these towering penthouses one passes by on Park Avenue, or even on the stroll here to the Jewish Museum, up Fifth Avenue. Florine has given us a peek into this decadent world of luxury and comfort she is inundated in and it borders on ridiculous. Her figures look bored.

Florine Stettheimer, “Asbury Park South,” 1920. Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York

Florine is also playing with the baroque, but in the French ornate way, whereas in my work, it’s more in conversation with the Italian emotive. When she engages in outdoor spaces, her position as the painter is distant. For example, in the painting Asbury Park, her gaze is located at a distance and above the crowd. She cannot escape her class position and it shows. She’s a party girl who cavorts with the black jazz intellectuals and artists, but this is not an act of racial solidarity so much as it is what being “avant-garde” meant back then. This is aesthetic fodder for a rich girl who has unlimited access despite being a woman, something that she is able to somewhat transcend because of her wealth. While her work is mostly happening during the roaring 20s, I couldn’t help but think about what her paintings looked like during the Great Depression. Her Cathedrals series began at the start of the crash and leave much to be desired. Is this a critique or an homage? What if Florine would have painted unemployment lines? My gaze is located somewhere on that line, and so Florine and I will never meet.

Shellyne Rodriguez, “Girl,” 2012

Stettheimer also created drawings, three-dimensional figures, and designed stage sets for the theatre. Similarly, you work in a variety of mediums. How do you decide what kind of materials to use when creating a work of art?

I think I am always chasing the same ideas in my work, and the different mediums I work with (with their advantages and limitations) make room for me to articulate these ideas in interesting ways. It’s not so much a decision. I will work with whatever medium you give me and the work will speak on its own. Still, I have my staples. Paper and found objects are where I always begin. That’s how I get things cooking in the studio. Tearing, drawing, writing text, and rearranging is a part of the process. Sometimes, like with the ceramic series, it really feels like the work can say something more in another form, and so the new medium becomes an iteration of what I have been working on. For example, I’m planning on pulling out elements of the large works on paper and creating some etchings. That should be interesting.

How does your work as an educator intersect with your own studio practice?

My approach as an educator is two-pronged. I teach through the pedagogical lens of inquiry-based learning and I am rooted in the ideas and insights of Bell Hooks’ model of teaching to transgress. The pedagogical practices of Hooks have emerged from what she calls “a radical interplay of anticolonial, critical, and feminist pedagogies.” Hooks is always looking for new ways to interrogate systems of domination, while providing new ways to teach heterogeneous groups of students. What Bell Hooks calls enabling transgressions, I refer to as subversion. Subversive acts in teaching and learning is what makes education the practice of freedom. When these two pedagogies come together, which ultimately find their root in the work of Paulo Freire, the question moves from, what do you see, or, what do you think, to, what do you want to do and how do we want to address it? This opens up an array of possibilities not just in the classroom, but also in the realm of art, and in the fight for social justice.

Shellyne Rodriguez, “Space and Time,” 2016

Teaching subversion is fundamental to my practice as an educator, because it has been fundamental to my survival. It is located in the core of my political activism, and it is the shadow in my artistic practice. I believe that art possesses the very potent ability to subvert what we think we know, and what we think we experience with our senses and with our minds. When art and social justice move in parallel to each other, then we enter the realm of the subversive. We become concerned with the destruction of illusions, which the materiality of art has also been in the service of. When art, social justice, and education work in tandem, it sets off a current of imagination, the possibilities of resistance begins to surface, and the quest for freedom takes center-stage.

What can participants expect from the upcoming Studio Workshop, Provocative Portraits, which you are teaching at the Jewish Museum in connection with the Florine Stettheimer exhibition?

Expect to have candid conversations. Expect to use your bodies and to tease out the qualities of yourselves to put it in this work. We are going full baroque in feeling and in adornment. This will be an experimental and fun way to make portraiture. This is not going to be fussy draftsmanship, but a layered and exciting way of looking in the mirror, in response to, or in reaction to Florine’s work. The choice is yours!

The Adult Studio Workshop led by Shellyne Rodriguez takes place June 8, 15, and 22 at 5:30 – 8 pm. Registration is required and includes all three sessions. Sign up here.

– Rachael Abrams, Associate Manager of Studio Programs and Chris Gartrell, Assistant Manager of Adult Programs, the Jewish Museum