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Anthony Rondinone

Artist Spotlight

Painting allows me to work through my childhood, the things I saw and experienced growing up in The Bronx, but also to think about what is going on in society today and to start conversations about it.

Anthony Rondinone is an American painter born and raised in the Bronx, New York. His expressive stylistic portraits are his tool to convey the raw emotions that are common in poor immigrant communities such as his, like addiction, isolation, depression, and anger. With his works, the artist aims to encourage self-reflection and tap into the viewer's own emotions, asking them to establish a personal connection with the featured characters in order to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others. In establishing this intimate moment of confrontation, the artist shows that there is a certain beauty in sadness or even in the ugly side of humanity.

INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST


Q. You are a self-taught artist, what made you delve into the medium of painting as a form of expression?  

A. I grew up drawing and I taught myself how to play the guitar on a broken guitar a friend of my dad had given us. We painted our own home, so we always had house paint around that I could paint with. Originally, I actually gravitated more towards writing music, but eventually I realized I could be more expressive through visual art. It was a more direct way to access, explore and express emotions for me. I find it more primal and intuitive. For the first time, I was really able to work through my issues and connect to feelings of empathy and compassion. Painting allows me to work through my childhood, the things I saw and experienced growing up in The Bronx, but also to think about what is going on in society today, and to start conversations about it.

Q. How do you think your approach differs from that of classically schooled artists? 

A. I find that a lot of classically schooled artists are more technical. They care about process, technique, what materials they are using, what brand brushes they use, or who they know in the art world. I don’t give one fuck about any of that. I literally don’t give a shit about any of it. For me, I paint from my soul - as pretentious as that sounds. I’m trying to tap into raw emotions and express what I feel or what I observe. Whether it comes from my personal past, a social issue, or I’m commenting on the current state of the world, when I start working I go in with an idea of what I want to say, or what topic I want to explore, and once I know what that intention feels like on an emotional level, my body and intuition take over and I use whatever tools or materials help to express that visually. I only care about emotion and evoking something for myself and for the viewer. That’s all.

Q. You have stated that your work is an expression of the urban environment and community in which you grew up, how do these elements find their way into your pieces? 

Q. What are some of the emotions you are seeking to express or evoke? - Do these stem from your personal emotional world or are they rather meant to convey a certain universal experience.

Q. Do you think there is a beauty or appeal in the less pleasant sides of life? 

A. Absolutely. Melancholy especially. Melancholy draws me in. It’s like a warm bath you don’t want to get out of. It’s deep and romantic. There is beauty in sadness, there’s freedom in rage, there's helplessness in anxiety. Next time you see someone rage and act out in a store, really look at them. Try to see past the surface. See that little kid inside of them who doesn’t know how to handle their emotions crying out for help. This is how I analyze life, so it’s easy for me to find beauty in unexpected places. In general, New York City wasn’t a pleasant place to live during the 80s/90s, and think of how much beautiful art and music has come of it. I actually think the less pleasant sides often breed some of the most beautiful things in life. There’s a reason good food usually comes from the poorest places.

Q. Why do you often choose characters from popular culture or political figures as your subjects? 

A. The characters I choose are starting points for topics I want to explore. For instance,  Sesame Street represents a low income NYC neighborhood and each character is a different archetype. These characters are easily understood since they are from pop culture, so there’s less explaining necessary to start the conversations I want to have with these pieces, for example on topics such as social issues that plague lower income inner city neighborhoods. The idea of Cookie Monster suffering from addiction is more quickly understood than when I would use a made up character. There are so many different layers to addiction that I talk about through that character, but I can get to the points I want to make quicker because it’s a pop culture reference.

I usually will use a political figure if there’s something in politics that I want to comment on. This is fun for me because I don’t really take sides in politics, I just observe. It’s very easy for me to see both sides, see each side talking past each other not really fixing anything, just watching the pendulum swing back and forth. It’s also fun stirring the pot sometimes with the politicians I use or with how I portray them.

Q. How do you instill these well-known figures with new meaning through your artistic process?

A. So, for the Sesame street series for instance, these are characters that are typically portrayed as happy carefree beings in society, which makes sense for a children's show. What I try to do is show the sides of these characters that you would not typically see. Or how these characters would be if they were real humans living in our society. The idea of Cookie monster being an addict, for instance. On the show he’s painted as a silly character who just can’t stop eating cookies. But what does that look like in real life? If you really took the time to get to know this person and sit with them, they would be a very dark and sad, multi-layered character. There are so many sides of addiction to explore and empathize with. This is one example of how I reimagine these characters in a darker or more exaggerated, a more ‘real world’ way.

Q. In some of your other works the distorted subject seems to remain anonymous entirely. What function does this anonymity fulfill for you and how do these two different bodies of work relate to one another? 

A. Both bodies of work are about connecting to emotion and empathy. When I use recognizable characters it’s to start a conversation about an issue tied to a certain emotion, depending on which character is being used. With the anonymous figures, it’s more for the viewer to find themselves in the emotion that is portrayed, to connect that feeling to their personal life or experiences. These anonymous characters are typically portraying rage or melancholy. Both are emotions people tend to shy away from or that aren’t typically socially acceptable. I think it’s important to connect with these sides of our personality in a healthy way, so I love it when people can find themselves in these more abstract figures.

People ascribe their own emotion to these anonymous characters, which is always interesting. I create them to work through my personal emotions on a certain subject or on something that is going on in society. They mean something specific to me and sometimes a collector connects with the work in the same way, which I always love, or it resonates in an entirely different way, and we get to talk about that. This is also a cool process - to hear what they get out of the piece, even if it’s different from what I intended.

Q. You have stated that you are looking to provide a personal moment of confrontation, what would you like to confront the viewer with?

A. So this depends on the series. There are some pieces, typically the more anonymous or abstract ones, where I want the viewer to find themselves in the piece and connect with it on a personal level. To feel what emotion it’s triggering and reflect on times they’ve felt this way or an event in their life that has made them experience this. It’s basically the opposite of how I work. I think of a subject or experience I want to work through and the end result is the emotion reflected in the piece. I want viewers to see the piece and work backwards to the experience that made them feel this way and work through it.

In other series, typically the ‘pop series’, I want to confront the viewers with ideas or types of people they don’t typically empathize with. For instance, Ernie, as I see it, represents a closeted gay man. Most people don’t really think about what it’s like to have to hide who you really are, how you actually feel, to be ashamed of something you can’t control. I think that if a person really looked into this and thought about it, they’d realize they’ve probably experienced a similar feeling on some level. That’s empathy. I think this brings people closer and makes them more understanding of one another.

Q. How much of your work is planned in advance and how much comes into existence during the process itself?

A. It depends on the piece, some are planned out in terms of what I want to say and which character and pose I want to use to say it, but usually the emotion that you see in the final painting comes into being based on my thought process while I work. I think through what I want to say and how it makes me feel and that is the emotion reflected in the piece.

Q. Could you describe your artistic process?

A. I usually have something on my mind, an event that’s current, or something I want to say. I might think about a character that can help me say it, or a pose that feels right. I just stare at a blank canvas and think and feel. Then, at some point, I start to paint. My body takes over; I get in a zone and just pick up different tools that feel right in that moment and use colors that feel good at the time. Next thing I know, the painting is taking shape and it starts to feel like what I was thinking about. It’s like a conversation between me and the piece; I let it take me where it wants to go. It’s a very instinctual process.

Q. Do you listen to music when you work? 

A. Most of the time yes, I choose the music depending on what I am painting, which emotion or feeling I want to go for. It helps me get in the mood for the character development of the figure I am about to work on. There are sessions where the emotion is already set and I’m just adding details, so in those cases I will sometimes listen to a podcast so I can learn something at the same time. I really like using my time wisely so if I can learn something while working, even better! 

Q. What are some of the difficulties you have had to overcome or are still struggling with as an artist? 

A. Money. Just being honest. It’s not easy trying to make a career out of creativity, so that is a big thing for a lot of artists especially in the beginning of their career: feeling financially stable.

Q. What ambitions do you have for your artistic career? 

A. Creatively I want to be known as the person who paints people’s souls. When I paint portraits, I’m not just painting the person, I’m painting what’s inside of them: their energy, the emotions they need to confront. I’m painting their soul, not their face.

Ultimately though, I want to open up a place for art in the Bronx. Not an art school, I don’t want to teach people how to paint. I want to create a place where people can be inspired and learn how to get in touch with their emotions, to learn to express themselves as a way to heal. It’s helped my life so much, and I think it could help a ton of kids who grew up like me.

Q. Could you describe your work in three words?

A. Social & psychological reflections

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