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‘Ideas stew in me for years’: A studio visit with Miguel Rodriguez

<p>Artist Miguel Rodriguez. PHOTO: MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ</p>

Artist Miguel Rodriguez. PHOTO: MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ

A HEADLESS, neon-red turtle sits on a table next to the mold it emerged from. Preparing for his exhibit, E’ryday Science, now at the Clark County Rotunda Gallery, artist Miguel Rodriguez was trying out different materials. An experiment with resin, the tragically funny creature didn’t make it out of the mold with all its appendages intact and now resides in the studio, for comic relief.

On either side of the garage studio, tables and shelves are laden with power tools, quarts of casting liquids, chunky white plaster molds, neon paint kits, cans of spray paint and more. The orange hose of a Kobal air compressor snakes through the space, and somewhere in the back a radio broadcasts the sounds of a cello. The air is dusty, hot.

In the backyard, an office chair bakes in the sun. “I was moon-bathing last night,” he explains, wheeling it into the shade so we can continue our conversation. Adjacent to us, a large ear made of EPS foam, a sculpture in progress, hangs on wood scaffolding, inadvertently eavesdropping.

“This is a piece I’ve had in my mind for a while,” Rodriguez explains, gesturing at the giant ear. “Each one is going to have a massive 14th Street door knocker on it,” he adds, explaining that it’s a tie-in with the “Crossover King” monologue performed by Latin actor John Leguizamo. Door-knocker earrings references stereotypes from the monologue and the idea of using fashion to fit in and mask one’s identity — a concept that, growing up in rural, white Kansas, Rodriguez became familiar with. During high school he re-enacted the monologue, and 20 years later the visuals are still working their way out in his art. “These ideas stew in me for year and years, ” he says.

The ear pieces are quirky, subtle yet accessible, tapping into popular culture — characteristics found in many of Rodriguez’s works. In the government center, pieces such as “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” composed of a series of bright, cartoony, carnivorous plants, resonate with the youthful discovery that flesh-eating plants actually exist. A walk through these hungry plants is like a 3D translation of a video-game level. The punchy colors of the foam sculpture “Monolith,” a giant blue brain with yellow lighting bolts shooting out of the base, appeals to a fourth-grade science level while gently tugging at older age groups rekindling adolescent fascinations with science and biology.

Rodriguez has become as known for his foam sculptures as for his cast objects, but foam is still a fairly new medium for him. He discovered it back in 2006, working as a sculptor for the manufacturing company Egads.

“Foam was awesome to me because of how light it was … how easy it is to carve,” Rodriguez says. “The reductive process is still pretty challenging for me because for 10 years I was just working in ceramics, and that’s all additive.”

Heading over to a work bench he demonstrates shaping and smoothing foam with a variety of tools: files, sandpaper, currycomb, the scrapping and sanding sending a flurry of foam kernels into the air. “Styrofoam will get all over your clothes,” he says. He points to a can of Scotch Guard. “This stuff saves my life.” Saving his favorite for last, a wire strung across a U-shaped metal bar hums with electricity; it slices cleanly through the foam, yet easily follows complex curves and lines drawn with a black Sharpie.

“I always wanted to work on a monumental scale, ever since I was a little boy, and foam afforded that, and it still does.”

Upping the scale of his work has lead Rodriquez to increasingly participate in public art projects — and to understand the need for a subtle hand when relaying powerful and potentially controversial ideas in the work.

His piece “Off Like a Herd of Turtles” presents a rainbow of small turtles marching across the Rotunda floor. Each color representing a facet of the visible light spectrum translates into a slow-moving reptile ironically moving at the speed of light. But the rainbow formed by the piece, if looked at in an LGBT context, suddenly comments upon the speed, or lack thereof, with which society and legislation adapts to a subcultural community.

“One of the reasons I like showing in the government center is … because I like that the primary viewer is going to be someone that is not necessarily part of the art scene, art conversation,” Rodriguez explains. “You’re forced to [make art] in a manner that is more subversive. No one would think of turtles, cute little turtles, as having any sort of subversive nature. In a more private gallery setting with [politics] you’re just preaching to choir and we’re all praising our liberalness. … We’re circle jerking it.”

Ultimately, his use of colorful, engaging forms connecting with contemporary imagery and culture aims to address a deeper issue found in many works of public art — “the banal.”

“The whole banal thing… gets me really riled up. So much of public artwork is banal. It’s total background,” Rodriguez says. “I understand the desire not to offend people, although what is offensive is obviously something worthy of discussion. Hundreds and thousand of dollars [are spent] on a piece of artwork, but if no one notices it, what’s the fucking point?”

Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery 500 S. Grand Central Pkwy.