In his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," biologist and author Richard Dawkins coined the word meme as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads. Internet memes are the byproduct of the digital age. They are most often images or videos that are accompanied by mimicry or humorous captions and they spread rapidly from one person to another through online channels. Memes are now shared most broadly through social media but they gained their initial popularity in message boards and blogs. Acting as inside jokes, the memes of message boards provided a self-reflective commentary on niche subcultures.
Memes have now made their way into the mainstream and often relate to news accounts, social interactions, or pop culture happenings. They serve as both commentary and parody. This type of mockery existed in the art world well before memes were a part of our common vernacular. In some ways, memes can be viewed as a second coming of the Dada art movement, which spanned from 1916 through 1924 and served as commentary on materialism and nationalistic attitudes that arose after World War I.
This relationship is not lost on fine artist Tony Rodrigues, who is also an avid art historian. Through painting, photography, and printmaking, Rodrigues creates work that appropriates images from popular culture and places them in different contexts. It isn't uncommon for Rodrigues's work to incorporate timeworn materials, such as old textbooks, magazines, and safety manuals that he bought at garage sales and thrift stores. In his work, Rodrigues employs images from past and present alike to create a skewed sense of nostalgia. His repurposed images convey feelings that range from quiet levity to somber introspection.
Rodrigues also works as an arts educator, specifically teaching visual arts at the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility and PACE Center for Girls. The program is administered by Cathedral Arts Project, who provides underserved, school-aged children with access to, and instruction in, the visual and performing arts, thus unleashing the creative spirit of young people. Rodrigues first started working with at-risk youth as a teaching artist through CANVAS, a program founded by the Cultural Council in the mid 90s that ran through the early 2000s.
Rodrigues instructs young men and women who are 12 to 17 years old. Merely children in age, they are jailed as they await trial. Because of the severity of their situations, these tweens and teens will be prosecuted as adults. Some of Rodrigues's students have been housed in the detention center and awaiting trial for more than two years. In the summer of 2017, students of Rodrigues had their work on display in an exhibit titled "County Missives," which was hosted by the Lufrano Intercultural Gallery at the University of North Florida. The emotionally compelling exhibit received rave reviews by art patrons and program advocates.
Rodrigues does a fine job of blending the line between artist and arts professional. In addition to being a teaching artist, Rodrigues has also worked for private galleries, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville as an art transporter and installer. As an artist, Rodrigues maintains a detached private studio at his home in Murray Hill.
10 Questions with Tony Rodrigues
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I try to keep multiple works, in various phases of completion, going at any given time. Sometimes things linger and develop in relation to other more thought out projects. I tend to work in broad series that expand on general themes while letting them evolve stylistically and thematically as I work through each piece.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
Hopefully I'm still learning.
In the studio, I try to balance consistency in practice with willingness to experiment, shift directions and embrace change. I think that practice transfers to other aspects of my life. Observing and thinking about art encourages and sustains intellectual curiosity and that's really what it's all about for me. Ideas are everything. Making an effort to understand new ones enhances problem solving skills.
How do you define success in what you do?
I've been fortunate to be able to maintain my studio practice through all these years and I still prioritize that time. I feel like I'm in a good place with teaching and art handling schedules that are flexible enough to allow me to make the things that I want to. Those things and my dogs' good company in my little studio feel like winning.
How do you feel your experience handling, installing, and lighting artwork professionally for galleries and museums has benefited your career as a visual artist?
That's something that I picked up through necessity as a result of hanging my own work and friends' work in pop up spaces and makeshift galleries. Later, I did installation and transportation with galleries and museums for supplemental income. Things stepped up when I started working at MOCA Jacksonville.
I enjoy working with that high level of detail. Presentation is expected to be clean and perfect. Working with deadlines while maintaining standards is a broadly applicable skill. And obviously, the close up exposure to great works is inspiring.
You have collaborated with Mark George, Mike Bruce, George Cornwell, and most recently visiting artist in residence Paul Weiner. What are your expectations when entering into a collaborative project? Additionally, how do you feel collaborations contribute to the development of an artist?
Mark is a dear friend of more years than I'd care to say. If I did it would make us a pair of geezers. Mike is a legend in two different genres/mediums. We only did the single piece together (which belongs to Mike, when I finally frame it). George is a treasure for area artists to work with and a consummate pro. He listens, understands, and offers advice and solutions. His support on the Deutsche Bank mural last year was crucial. Meeting Paul and working with him was great. He works with a great balance of energy and thoughtfulness. I'm happy Long Road Projects brought him here and got us together.
Expectations vary. Sometimes these things just start as an experiment that may not really work out. I think that surrendering total authorship for a time is healthy and helps me see things from different perspectives.
Your work is both nostalgic and critical, appropriating and juxtaposing aspects of popular culture. How do you see the relationship between internet memes and contemporary art?
The nostalgic part is maybe a bit inherited. "Saudade" is a Portuguese word that refers to heart-sore yearning but doesn't have a literal translation. That was more evident in my earlier work and there is a thread of that psychology still there, even when it's shrouded in humor.
I've been interested in image appropriation and filtering the zeitgeist of different eras through my own lens for a long time. I was enamored with Dada practices and tried to emulate that before Pop style picture-grabbing. Pairing found images with words has been part of my game for so long that meme culture has naturally seeped into my work.
There's a rich spectrum of ironic social commentary and gut-punching jokes on the interwebs right now. What a time to be alive! Seriously, I see the best of meme culture as a broad democratization of Post Modernism. Interlacing wit and the tedious bleakness of contemporary society is deep. There's a pervasive gallows humor in this medium that's being left to speak to our current era.
How has working as a teaching artist impacted your life?
It's had a profound impact on how I see and experience the city I grew up in. I first started teaching through the Cultural Council. There was then a lapse of a few years before resuming teaching in 2015 with Cathedral Arts Project. The time away made some things much more clear.
How do the young men and women who participate in your programs respond to the opportunity to work together to create? Additionally, how do you think access to the arts and instruction during one's formative years can positively impact their life's trajectory?
They respond differently. Some embrace it sooner. Some come around after a little while. Some never do. Generally, I have to coax a new group along and try to share my enthusiasm for the practice of painting and for the artists we are studying.
There's a lot of mistrust in that environment and it's a tough thing to ask these guys to let their guards down. When (if) that happens, there are no limits. Sadly, some of our students don't have very good outcomes to their cases and their lives' trajectories are already so far off that art will not change the consequences of conviction.
Their stories are still worth hearing. They can help us understand how children have slipped through our society's fingers and are now a part of the adult criminal justice system, in some cases for decades. Some still have better chances in their futures and hopefully the class experience introduces new possibilities for them. Patience, empathy, communication skills, problem solving, cooperation and perseverance are all lessons that can come with an immersive studio art environment.
As someone who has been creating art for multiple decades, how do you continue to push yourself and experiment with sources, materials, and processes? Likewise, what aspects of your process have remained consistent throughout your career?
Consistency is 90% mental and the other half is just doing things... (nod to Yogi Berra). Seriously, I still just like to look at pictures, sculpture, installations, and such. Art history is an never ending conversation that holds my interest and spurs me to make things (or sometimes to give up completely). I guess presenting work is like trying to get a relevant word into that greater dialogue.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city's creative economy?
Well, there are so many types of creatives but my interest lies with our fine artists. I'd like to see efforts to introduce our best area artists to other markets. Also, we still struggle to maintain venues dedicated to contemporary art. Co-op studios, bars, cafes, restaurants and other spaces are fine, but Jax needs spaces that are SOLELY for presenting art. Commercial galleries require reliable patronage from enthusiastic and dedicated collectors. We aren't there yet. A curated non-profit center with a mission to exhibit accomplished artists from here and other cities would be nice.