… being a lengthy, completely superfluous, shocking profile of fabulously demented queer Latino artist Tino.
Just now, Tino Rodriguez is hot. Some would say he’s always been hot, but consider his art, rather than the 32-year-old San Francisco painter’s vibrant queer sexuality. Even those who don’t regularly patronize art galleries could well run across Rodriguez’s work. Walk into a bookstore carrying gay literature, and there among the new arrivals you’ll see a paperback volume with a striking cover illustration by Rodriguez. The anthology, Virgins, Guerrillas, & Locas: Gay Latinos Writing on Love, edited by Jaime Cortez (Cleis Press; 1999) is adorned with a painting of a young Latino man with dark-shadowed, unblemished features. The youth’s huge, piercing eyes seem to gaze inward as his scarlet lower lip puffs out, as though he were about to cry; thick black eyebrows are accentuated by an ebony choker around the lad’s smooth neck. Most notable is the translucent-white wedding veil adorning the young man’s head, framing his androgynous face.
The image smacks of transgression, a Mexican artist’s slap in the face of machismo, through the somewhat heretical feminization of what ought to be, by traditional Mexican cultural standards, a thoroughly masculine visage. Is this merely a metaphorical portrayal of a virginal boy, no more offensive than a church icon? Or does this figure represent something much more revolutionary: an already thoroughly deflowered Latino youth, veiled to lure the attentions of other, predatory males – a youth who wants to be mauled for the umpteenth time, his lips pried apart and forced to wrap around someone’s monster cock? His apparent sadness, in this view, would be that of a youth torn by his queer desires and the recognition of his outcast status in Mexican society.
To puzzle out the answer to the image, one must know Tino Rodriguez and his body of work. Fortunately, opportunities to do so are near at hand, with showings of Rodriguez’s work happening first at Bucheon Gallery, located in art-trendy Hayes Valley, and shortly thereafter at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, at the prestigious biannual group exhibition, “Bay Area Now 2.”
The Bucheon exhibition, a one-man showing by Rodriguez entitled Apocalyptic Innocence, features a host of miniature paintings, all realized in the artist’s signature style, a formalist approach to bizarre and often deeply disturbing scenes. The works resemble Renaissance paintings in technique and presentation, yet a close glance reveals twisted themes of decapitation, bloodletting, cock sucking, ass play, boys and adults flaunting their penises, rabbits and fairies at play, and demonic creatures with human torsos, erect, lustful, and sadistic – all rendered as in fairy tales.
“It’s a formal style, yes,” responds Rodriguez when asked about his approach, which he developed mostly on his own, albeit with some training at the San Francisco Art Institute and elsewhere. “I’m painting in a very traditional way a very non-traditional subject matter. Like, one has someone sucking cock, and in another one someone’s sticking his finger up someone’s ass – in a beautiful Renaissance style. This kind of painting wasn’t even done in the Renaissance, and if it was, we’ll never see any of it, because they were burned by that guy Savonarola.”
In one of Rodriguez’s miniatures, “Forever and Ever,” a fanged monkey leers at a genteel, almond-eyed woman adorned in Elizabethan finery. The grotesque creature seems drawn not only to the woman’s body, but to her bodace. Behind the two stretches a hazy, verdant landscape, a sort of dreamscape.
“We have a saying in Mexico,” says Rodriguez, who was born in Guadalajara and moved to the United States at age 12: “When you’re a monkey, even if you wear the fanciest clothing, you won’t stop being a monkey. Meaning people are what they are, regardless of what they wear or how much money they have. I think this [“Forever and Ever”] is a take on that.”
His parents were not artistic, and had little education. The first art that captured his imagination, says Rodriguez, were the religious images adorning old churches in his native country: “paintings, murals, retablos, all the statues with glass eyes. I think all these images are somehow a part of my childhood – a lot of blood, a lot of suffering. But there’s a lot of magic too, all those cherubs and little kids.”
Cherubs, kids, blood, erections, and magic gardens are all reoccurring themes in Rodriguez’s work. One of his signature pieces in the “Apocalyptic Innocence” exhibit, “The Golden Age,” a 10″ x 14″ oil on wood painting, depicts all of these elements. It could be a fairy tale rendered in Renaissance style, but Rodriguez says it was based on no story, but simply emerged from his imagination without connection to any particular story (Rodriguez devours darkly poetic writings by Rimbaud, Genet, Bataille, Blake, and the like). A trio of rabbits dances in the scene’s foreground, their shadows visible against the mysterious metallic ball behind them on the parquet floor, a manicured garden observable through the open-curtained window in the background.
Why the inclusion of rabbits in this and so many other of his paintings, Rodriguez is asked. He replies in typical blunt, forthright style: “I like them because they’re horny.”
Rodriguez places a huge emphasis on sexuality both in his imagery and in his personal life. When he isn’t painting – and it’s rare that he isn’t, because he makes his living solely through his art, which requires enormous discipline and working late into the evenings as exhibitions loom – he fully enjoys the boisterous company of fellow young artists and gay revelers. He’s a dancing fiend, particularly enamored of techno-trance music, and on his nights out at house parties, art openings, bars and clubs, he exudes boundless energy, enthusiasm, and lust. His laughter, rich and full, fills any room he occupies; in conversation, he displays a gentlelness that seems at times at odds with his chosen themes, so often dark and disturbing. Yet that gentleness can be seen in the faces he paints – so often modeled on his own handsome features. His subjects rarely smile, however; most often they betray an odd passivity, whether they’re experiencing orgasm or being beheaded, or they grimace in the throes of unspeakable terrors.
Why, he’s asked, is blood evident in so many of his paintings? “Well, I’m Mexican, hello? I still have the pagan in me. It hasn’t been that far away, the sacrifices in the 16th century.”
But one can’t help think Rodriguez is working through some very personal issues in his chosen subject matter, a fact he confirms in explaining the subject of a self portrait entitled “Broken,” part of the Bucheon Gallery exhibit: “That’s me after being slapped.”
And who slapped him? “Oh, fuck, life. Actually, I was hoping to dedicate ‘Apocalyptic Innocence’ to everyone who had hurt me, which is really kind of cool, because everybody else dedicates shows to people they love, their mom, dad, boyfriends, girlfriends, families, things like that. And I’m like, why can’t I just fuckin’ dedicate this to everybody who’s hurt me?”
The opening reception for “Apocalyptic Innocence” took place at Bucheon Gallery (540 Hayes St.) on Friday, October 29, 1999. The opening reception for “Bay Area Now 2” took place in the Grand Lobby of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St.) on Friday, November 19, 1999.
This article originally appeared in the October 28, 1999 Bay Area Reporter.