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Love + Art

Arturo Rodriguez and his wife, Demi, chronicle their relationship on canvas. Their always-interesting paintings are charming but never sentimental.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published November 7, 2004


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[Images from Gulf Coast Museum of Art]
Demi, The Kiss, 2002, acrylic on canvas.

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Arturo Rodriguez, Los Navegantes, 1988, oil on canvas.

LARGO - In every relationship, the French are fond of saying, there is one who kisses and one who is kissed.

You couldn't prove it by "Demi y Arturo: Por El Amor y la Vida" at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. This couple qualifies for the title of Most Mutually in Love in the Universe.

Art created as witness to passion can be great (think Dante and Beatrice or Pablo Picasso and any of his numerous lovers and wives) or dreadful (Jen and Ben or Madonna and Guy Ritchie).

The paintings of Arturo Rodriguez and his wife, Demi, recording their apparently blissful relationship, are often very good and always interesting. They are never sentimental, not even the sweetly fantastical ones by Demi (she uses no last name professionally), probably because they and those by Rodriguez, which are much more muscular, are so marvelously composed and rendered.

"Charming" is an overused word, but it's the one that fits Demi's portraits of the pair. According to her biography in the exhibition catalog, she is an actor who came to painting as an adult in 1980, after she met and fell in love with Rodriguez, a trained painter. She creates elaborate and lavish backdrops, so densely painted as to look collaged, for the insular world of her canvases, a hermetic one inhabited only by the Rodriguezes and, sometimes, the flocks of children they never had. They reference surrealism in the same way magical realism does in literature. I see, too, direct allusions to specific painters - Gustav Klimt especially. That comparison is almost unavoidable in The Kiss, of course, though Demi's take on a lip lock does not have Klimt's erotic charge. A difference is that in none of the paintings do the mouths of the lovers actually meet. Instead, they are captured in that moment of delirious anticipation. She actually levitates in The Dancer, floating upside down beside Rodriguez, whose feet are firmly planted on the floor while she, grounded not even by his hand, looks about to float away in a swirl of gossamer. In A Painter and His Model, she poses nude on a divan, curiously asexual, smelling a flower and stroking a peacock while he, fully clothed, paints her. She is draped in a filmy cloth and he wears draping trousers that are also transparent; we see through them not to his legs but to the art nouveau-like background.

They are more corporeal in Two Artists and the Children of Their Imagination as, dressed in sailor suits, they stand on a boat, painted without perspective as a flat surface that rears behind them as it floats on a swirling sea. A little girl, dressed in diaphanous pink, peeks from behind Demi's skirt. Demi holds a basket of flowers and a string attached to a large cone hovering over the water. A young boy gently touches the string and balances on a wave into which Rodriguez's sailor collar seems to melt.

In all her paintings, the two adults are unperturbed, calm. And all the children, though usually bald and doll-like, bear the same faces as the couple. It may be solipsistic, but it is a fully realized world of the imagination, beautiful and without irony. One of her most poignant works is a family portrait in which the couple is dressed as affluent 1950s Cubans in a house with a window opening onto hills and fields. With them are three little girls. In the effusiveness of its patterns, straight-on poses of the family and use of light and dark for dramatic effect, Demi seems in league with naive artists such as Henri Rousseau.

Both painters are Cuban exiles, and their work is infused with their responses to that dislocation. Demi is always present in Rodriguez's paintings (at least the group here) but the couple is usually part of a larger scenario, dancing or embracing in reaction to some sinister outside force, survivors whose strength is in their togetherness. They balance on a small boat (boats are common icons in Rodriguez's work for obvious reasons) with rudimentary sails as water circles like a maelstrom. In the distance are skylines of two cities. She, in heels and a lace-trimmed outfit, holds a flower. He, dressed eccentrically in shorts, patterned socks and a tie, holds a line. Above, clouds form and a jaunty pink pennant waves from a mast. There is sadness here, and potential disaster as each looks back at what they are leaving rather than what lies ahead. But the point is, they're holding hands, in this together.

Their connection is more pointed in Fools, a powerful testimonial to true love. The couple looks as if they're in the middle of a dance, a goofy dance, in which their heads are joined at the crown like conjoined twins. Their arms entwine in the Greek symbol for eternity. Beyond them are more water and clouds, but they are oblivious to anything but each other.

A group of collages included in the exhibition are a departure from Rodriguez's usual medium. Torn photographs are pasted on panels, a diorama of sorts, that record Demi's struggle with breast cancer in 1995 and her recovery. It isn't as accomplished as his paintings, but it is intensely personal.

In her case, love is ephemeral; in his, powerful. For each, ain't love grand?

In their case, yes.

* * *

Sculptures, paintings and drawings by William Schaaf also are at the Gulf Coast Museum and the pairing of his exhibition with that of Demi and Arturo Rodriguez makes more sense than one might think.

Schaaf, too, has an obsession. "Equine Visions," however, is not homage to horse portraiture made famous by George Stubbs. No, Schaaf is in love with horseness, not horses as particular creatures.

And it is not horseness in the Seabiscuit mold, either. These animals are both reductive - legs are usually stumps, for example - and monolithic. He focuses more on the muscular flanks and full torso, exaggerating the bulges of their necks and the musculature of their flanks as they sit, straining to rise or stand in a position suggesting imminent flight. Schaaf's sculptures range from the monumental to tiny fetishes, cast in bronze, molded in clay or carved from wood. Some have the sleekness and heft of a Henry Moore sculpture, others are roughly composed as if dug up from an archaeological site.

Accompanying then are paintings and drawings that give voice to a more lyrical interpretation. Riders sit astride them as they morph into flying birds. A pair of them, painted blood red, square off in a tussle. That tug between the horse's function as beast of burden or trophy prize results in a portrayal that renders it noble and humble, in service to an idea rather than a master.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

Review

"Demi y Arturo: Por el Amor y la Vida" and "William Schaaf: Equine Visions" are at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through Dec. 26. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students and free for ages 10 and younger. Free 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. (727) 518-6833.

[Last modified November 4, 2004, 17:01:06]


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