Francisco Rodriguez: In the night we believe
Text by Dylan Huw commissioned by Chapter Gallery to accompany Francisco Rodriguez: In the night we believe
For most of the 20th century's first half, the cluster of red bricks that is now Chapter Arts Centre housed a secondary school, Canton High, nicknamed the Canton Cowsheds for its previous life as a slaughterhouse. The site has been many things, its history as busy as the building was until recent events took over. The Chilean painter Francisco Rodriguez - stimulated by the space's unlikely pre-history in his first time exhibiting in Wales - has used his exhibition to resurrect some of the venues past lives. In doing so, his works bring the location's capacity for shapeshifting - a prominent theme in all Rodriguez's work - to light.
My last visit to Chapter was to try to finish this very text. Rodriguez was mid-install, and the simmer of our collective hysteria around the coming plague was rising to boiling point. I've deleted most of what I wrote then, as it felt a little like a relic from a different chapter in history. Already as Rodriguez' work was being installed, it seemed clear that the pandemic would lay bare the troubling incoherence of our civilising structures; the shakiness of our methods of sharing public space. That brief window, when we were still social but suspicious of each other, prone to elbow-handshakes and paranoiac chit-chat, feels like many lifetimes gone. The small-talk and sense of numbed insecurity which filled Chapter then - when we knew the virus' name but not its nature - felt like a generative setting for Rodriguez' paintings. The title of his exhibition, 'In the night we believe', seemed already to take on some more emphatic meaning. As I write, the building has been shut to the public for two months, and Rodriguez' paintings have had nothing but the inanimate emptiness of Chapter's café-bar for an audience.
The shadowy figures who populate this fierce body of work would appreciate their altered setting, I think. They would relish the dimness, and the quiet, and the sense of there being some unfinished business. In Rodriguez' pictures, outlines are heavy, shadows are stark, and violence feels somehow omnipresent but obscured, if it is visible at all. Assembled on top of each other and making the most of the exhibition space's full length, 'In the night we believe' feels like more than a presentation of the artist's recent paintings; it feels like a sited history all scraped-together in playful strokes, on view, now, to no-one. Rodriguez' paintings are imbued with a sense of darkness, not so much in their actual composition but in the condition they convey; a darkness which feels as if it might encompass light and play and gleeful rebellion, as well as badness, and nothingness. I got a sense of the ghostly from them long before their context rendered them actual ghost images.
This ghostliness is shot through with a playful, scrapbook-like quality, a youthful exuberance, a bedroom-wall kind of bravado, which only makes the sinister sense of there being some untold terror at bay all the more stark. The exhibition's fragmentation overwhelms, to begin, but does not intimidate; the presentation evokes doodles scratched in a school desk, or scraps of imagery pritt-sticked on to a locker. Dotted among the paintings is the familiar anti-establishment refrain ACAB, that mirrors the graffiti on Chapter's neighbouring streets. Such spontaneous flourishes betray the paintings' delicate balance between light and dark, danger and play.
The same words tend to come up in discussions of Rodriguez' work: "mysterious", "cinematic", "austere", "dreamlike", "otherworldly", "sinister", "eerie". I have always struggled with the term "cinematic", in particular, as a descriptor for works of painting or sculpture, but given the debt of Rodriguez' visual vocabulary to grammars of cinema and graphic storytelling, it seems an apt way in to looking at his work. Those who populate his paintings - wild-west outlaws, figures framed from behind or in shadows, outsiders given to dirty looks - lend them a narrative vibrancy, which can make it feel futile to consider them as isolated individual works. The paintings feel possessed by a certain sense of animation, of being propelled forward by each other, of being both still and, somehow, in vivid motion. In smaller, figureless pieces like Twin Sun and Summer - among the sweeter offerings on show and also where Rodriguez' debt to Japanese artistic traditions comes through most clearly - even the brightest colours feel ominous.
In a bout of just-pre-pandemic melancholia, I sought comfort in the clean black lines Rodriguez painted directly on to the café-bar wall, which in their current context only serve to amplify the eeriness of his magic-realist tableaux. I have been thinking about those elbow-bumps of early March a lot as I've returned to his work - how juvenile our constant invocations of 'dystopia' feel now - and about how, via the vividness of Rodriguez' scenes, the past lives of the place seem to come alive. It is that aliveness I think that I have been holding on to, and that has frequently, in the grey chaos of the last two months, felt very far away.
Dylan Huw is a writer from Aberystwyth now living in Cardiff. He also works in creative development with National Theatre Wales. | Mae Dylan Huw yn 'sgwennwr o Aberystwyth sydd nawr yn byw yng Nghaerdydd. Mae hefyd yn gweithio yn adran datblygu creadigol National Theatre Wales. @dylanhuw | dylanhuw.com