Best of Times, Worst of Times: The Beautiful Struggle of Anthony Rondinone

Written by Leigh Pennington

Can there be beauty without struggle? How do we define what is beautiful? Beauty is complex. It does not denote the existence of absolute perfection and ease, rather the opposite. Everything that is deemed beautiful has a twinge of the unwanted or the overlooked. Struggle and lack of perfection adds the necessary texture to turn 2D transitory visual beauty into 3D   meaning. The struggle of life that in many ways defines the New York of past, present, and future will always be deemed as beautiful or romantic, because for every up there is a down, and we cannot recognize one without the other. Sometimes they are even one in the same.

Rondinone’s childhood became his first introduction into the world and the necessity of creating life and art from scratch.

Bronx born and raised visual artist Anthony Rondinone carries this philosophy within his work, a representation of his perspective and connection to the New York of his childhood during the 80s and 90s. He explained, “New York today is very cool and hip and everybody wants to be here…That is like the exact opposite of how it used to be, basically New York was a place that people lived out of necessity. It was just gritty, you know, very working class, people who lived in the boroughs were basically just kind of supporting the city. My dad was a maintenance man for a hospital on Roosevelt Island, and we lived in the Bronx…He was at work all day, came home at 5:30 or 6:00, and just stressed all the time. Paycheck to paycheck.”

Anthony Rondinone

Rondinone’s childhood became his first introduction into the world and the necessity of creating life and art from scratch. As an Italian kid growing up in the Bronx, “we never got people to work on our house. We did everything. So from the second I was four years old, I was helping my dad paint my apartment. We always had paint around…Our toys were building stuff…We didn’t really get a lot of toys, but he would bring home scrap wood or he had tools in the basement. So we were always making stuff.”

Rondinone expressed that for some artistic creation is the only outlet available to safely and fully release feelings or emotions that cannot find direct and verbal catharsis. Creation becomes a necessity when battling the pains of life where the creation in question acts as an emotional buffer. The expression is both direct and indirect. Rondinone recalled “I think even when I was younger, I used to draw weird stuff. I started by drawing Disney characters, just because I wanted to learn how to draw in 3D and how do you make things look a certain way? There’s one specific drawing, it was a smiley face on one side then the other side, the smiley face was melting off, and there was a skull underneath it…I remember doing this, and I was like, this is so deep, and it represents this thing that I’m feeling. I would never say that to anybody but it’s a drawing…I taught myself how to play guitar. I started writing songs. So in lyrics that can be really explicit, but it’s a lyric. So it can mean anything.”

Rondinone acknowledges that this is a very common thread amongst folks coming from or living in working class neighborhoods. Originality is something that is cultivated through unique trauma and hurdles that become the stepping stones to greater self-discovery and success. Rondinone was adamant about the fact that art that rises from environments of struggle contains an honesty that cannot be learned or purchased. These sorts of works are not “therapized in an overly logical way, it’s just coming out in a raw way, because they don’t know any other way to express it. It comes straight from their core, from their soul.”

Originality is something that is cultivated through unique trauma and hurdles that become the stepping stones to greater self-discovery and success.

During his early career as a musician Rondinone experienced the struggles of life, planting the seed of his affinity for understanding and creating works from the chaotic periods of everyday existence. Rondinone recounted that, “My singer and I were living together in Bensonhurst Brooklyn in a one bedroom that we converted into a two bedroom, and it didn’t have any heat. So we lived there through four or five winters…I would have to sleep with a winter jacket on and a hat and gloves…I feel like some of the worst times, when I think back on them are the most memorable..it was horrible going to sleep and it was freezing cold…but I remember that time and me and him had so much fun…There’s something that was romantic or beautiful about living through stuff like that, you know?”

The band eventually slowed down and Rondinone was left wondering how to fill his creative time. He knew he wanted to continue to pursue an artistic avenue and keep speaking to the truth of his experiences, but couldn’t quite put his finger on the answer. Then tragedy came when a close friend and fellow musician passed away unexpectedly. He recalled, “I just had it in my head that I wanted to paint a portrait of him. So I painted. It was like the first time I painted since I was a kid…While I was painting it, I was listening to his albums, and reflecting on my relationship with him and what that meant and my relationship with death…I really liked how that one turned out. It just felt like his energy….That process was really nice for me. His wife ended up wanting the painting…I really liked that process. So I’m going to keep doing this.”

Rondinone’s early visual works took on a very dark palette and theme. These works ignited his overall creative and experimental process as an artist.

Rondinone’s early visual works took on a very dark palette and theme. These works ignited his overall creative and experimental process as an artist. Rondinone’s method of creation follows a free flowing procession. His Night collection does not have a prior set destination of intention, rather the pieces came into being through pure unplanned expression as well as trial and error artistic techniques. 

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Rondinone explained, “It’s just a feeling that I wanted to get out. I think that just goes back to the darkness and the sadness of some of the stuff that comes from growing up in the city…I wasn’t painting those for anybody. That’s just what I wanted to paint…I wish I had a better explanation about why it was so dark. I think I just needed to get some things out.” Rondinone keeps this same approach when creating any of his works, “experimentation, curiosity. I know, once I start working, I’ll get something out that has a feel or a mood. I just don’t know what it’s gonna look like yet. I never know what it’s gonna look like.”

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Rondinone eventually developed a need and curiosity to create works with more color, pop, and narrative resulting in his use of famous cartoon personas that are known for being wholly innocent yet guilty figures. They are some of the most accurate representations of humanity, commenting on imperfection as the perfect form to elucidate what is beautifully real, human, and occasionally tragic. Classic cartoon figures from the Simpsons to Sesame Street feature prominently in Rondinone’s works, but they are not quite the familiar cast of characters with whom we grew up. These renditions are inspired and given their life blood from the company Rondinone interacted with everyday on the streets of the Bronx.

Rondinone described Sesame Street as a reflection of life in the Bronx, “when you look at the show, the show looks like a New York neighborhood…The set looks kind of dirty and grimy. You have a guy living in garbage, you have this other guy who’s addicted to cookies, and he just keeps eating cookies, to me he was a drug addict. Elmo is full of anxiety all the time.”

Rondinone eventually developed a need and curiosity to create works with more color, pop, and narrative resulting in his use of famous cartoon personas that are known for being wholly innocent yet guilty figures.

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Each Sesame Street character that Rondinone portrays carries within their representation a twinge of the unhinged. Cookie Monster’s essence as a sweet loving fiend is still intact, however with explosive lines and splatters of colorful chaos Rondinone leans harder into the sadness and erratic lack of self control that Cookie Monster represents. Rondinone recalled that “there was a drug addict who lived on my corner. It was the same thing…He (Cookie Monster) is actually a really sad character. He can’t help himself from doing this.”

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Even more explicitly Rondinone’s portrayal of Cookie Monster’s also includes commentary on the lifestyle of communities living in food deserts like the Bronx. Food wrappers from cool ranch doritos and almond joys are folded into the layers of the piece, foods that are commonly found and purchased in bodegas. Rondinone explained, “people in the Bronx have no understanding of nutrition or health…We used to eat so much stuff from bodegas that was just such shitty food…Then you wonder why everybody’s depressed and everybody aches.”

Each Sesame Street character that Rondinone portrays carries within their representation a twinge of the unhinged.

Art by Anthony Rondinone

New York is in many ways a bubble of cultural and historic events. Issues that can or come to be seen the world over often find the first foothold of exposure here. Another Sesame Street character that features in Rondinone’s works comments on the presence of gay life and the struggles of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. He recollected “When I paint Ernie…There was a gay couple who lived on my block, and one of the guys ended up dying of AIDS. So when I was like, six years old, my mom had to explain to me and my brother and sister what that means…That’s really early for a kid to be exposed to that. So it’s a lot of exposure to things that most of the country probably wasn’t being exposed to.”

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Family dynamics of struggling or overwhelmed parental figures are expressed in Rondinone’s portrayals of Marge Simpson. His depiction of Marge comments on his own recollections of his mother growing up, but also acknowledges the universal experience of motherhood, particularly in the context of the Bronx. Marge is depicted with her classically coiffed blue bouffant, but her temperament is far from composed. Her left eye jolts out at the viewer, she has had enough and has blown a gasket as a result. Her other eye squints, a look that would command the respect and attention of any misbehaving child. Her frown displays gritted and barred teeth.

Pop characters have allowed Rondinone to uphold his experimental creative process. Portraying themes and messages that people can better and more readily identify because they are attached to such well known characters.

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Rondinone decorated Marge’s head with a wreath of words saying “My mom had problems and I was her canvas.” He explained this decision and overall effect of Marge and “the Simpsons characters as a of low income family. So for Marge, I just imagine the stressed out mom who’s just yelling at her kids and you don’t know why she’s yelling at you, you’re just trying to have fun…As a kid you don’t realize that she’s working, she’s taking care of a house, she’s taking care of three kids. She’s stressed out. And that’s how it’s coming out.”

Art by Anthony Rondinone

Pop characters have allowed Rondinone to uphold his experimental creative process. Portraying themes and messages that people can better and more readily identify because they are attached to such well known characters. In his renderings of Homer Simpson Rondinone recounted, “When I first started doing it, I was trying to make them more recognizable in the beginning. So they’re probably more solid and stiff in a way. I think after working with them for longer, you realize how much freedom you have, especially in pop characters…Homer is so recognized…So it’s a little easier to expand his face or his emotion somehow, because you don’t have to stay in the lines.”

Art by Anthony Rondinone

However outlandish Rondinone’s pieces seem, each one is grounded in stable artistic expressions and practices that allow viewers to trust the execution of the artist’s messages. Control meets crazy. He explained the development of this principle, “The shirt it’s solid. You could tell that I understand where the light is coming from the collar is nice. The shirt looks like a shirt and then his face is completely fucked up. So it almost tells you there’s something that’s solid here, that’s grounded in reality. Then I’m doing this to the face purposefully. It’s not all mess, because if it’s all mess, then you don’t know what the person is doing.”

These cartoonish renderings are an appropriate representation of the struggle Rondinone and other native New Yorkers of old experienced. They touch on the sense of humor one must have in order to cope with hard times.

These cartoonish renderings are an appropriate representation of the struggle Rondinone and other native New Yorkers of old experienced. They touch on the sense of humor one must have in order to cope with hard times. Particularly if the struggles and stress never seem to dissipate, as soon as one wave passes another comes along. Rondinone expressed that, “people in the Bronx, and in places like this are just in full survival mode…there’s a lot of events and things that happen to people that if they let themselves feel what they could or should be feeling from that event, it would just be crippling. I know, growing up for me, we made everything into a joke…because we weren’t even aware of how hard that thing would actually hit us.”

Those who have called the city home for years acknowledge and thrive in the duality of real life, and do not distinguish between the romantic moments of triumph or strife. It is all wholly necessary to the well rounded beauty of the everyday. New York can give a person every avenue of expression and opportunity as well as plenty of demobilizing or demoralizing times. Rondinone is one such artist that understands these struggles of life become the crucible in which real gruesome and hopeful beauty and art can be formed.

Be sure to see Anthony Rodinone ’s upcoming duo exhibition, ‘Beauty in Struggle’ alongside

Naderson Saint Pierre. The dual exhibition is curated by Rich Ramsay Studio’s and will open

Thursday April 25th from 5-9pm, at 231 10th Ave, New York NY 10011.

 

 

Leigh Pennington – Hailing from Richmond Virginia, Leigh Pennington has lived, worked and studied around the world. She earned her BA in Anthropology, Art History, and Religion from Concordia University in Montreal. Last year she moved to New York to pursue a Masters in Oral History at Columbia University. Prior to moving back to the US she earned her first Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Jewish Studies. Currently Leigh works as a freelance culture content writer as well as an Op-Ed editor for the Times of Israel. Her writing has been published in major news and opinion media such as Quebec Heritage News, Tablet Magazine and Lilith Magazine.

Instagram: @lb_pennington