Back in April, I caught up with Jorge Rodriguez Gerada, an artist with a career spanning decades with an ever evolving style. At the time, he was working on a massive mural at the midtown Westin Hotel for Street Art for Mankind.
I sat down with Jorge to talk about his history of culture jamming, the importance of art with a message, and working a narrative into art.
When did you first start painting?
When I was younger, like all kids. I went to Jersey City State College and I met a bunch of multicultural kids. We started this group called ‘ArtFux’. It was really in your face, changing billboards, different kinds of culture jamming art. I did that, starting in ‘89. By ‘92, I was really full on with it. I was 21 or 22 years old. I was running around the city with Ron English, changing street signs, billboards, coming from the culture jamming side.
“Art is a philosophical endeavor, where you try to say things that are important through a medium.”
What made you interested you in culture jamming?
One of the things that always bothered me about the history of art and the people who actually make it – at the high levels where it’s selling for millions and becoming a commodity – you start realizing this smokescreen that’s been thrown up that art is based on who sells the most. Which is bullshit. Art is not that. Art is a philosophical endeavor, where you try to say things that are important through a medium.
If it’s just based on being commercially viable, as the only thing you have to check off the list, you’re missing the point. There’s a lot of crap out there that’s considered high level, like Koons. Hirst has this great guy who was helping him do the financial side. When he went against the galleries and went directly to Sotheby’s and Christie’s to do his auction sales, he broke records. At that moment, it was a fiscal paradise. If you have a $100 million you want to stash, you buy a $100 million art piece and maybe it depreciates. But at least you’ve saved some of that money in a second sale. That’s one of the biggest problems you have at those levels.
There’s another level, also. During the explosion of abstract expressionism, there was a critic named Clement Greenberg. During the Marshall Plan, artists throughout Europe were hand-picked to be “new art of the age.” All narrative was considered passe. Art became emotional, movement of paint, to the point where you now have the Turner Prize putting out stuff where you’re just scratching your head. All these “Emperor’s New Clothes” artists showed and I see that they’re naked. I want to do something more important.
“Is it ephemeral, is it permanent? Is it made of sand? Is it painted? What scale? Where is it located? All of these things are part of the narrative.”
How do you think having a narrative has been communicated throughout your style and your career?
I’m a humanist. Creating portraiture art for all these years, all my pieces are based on stories. Each portrait I’ve done is very tiny, and the fragment pieces all have a reason for existing. There’s artists that just paint pretty girls. Mine is always going in, doing research, who deserves to get this attention and why. Changing up the scale and material allows me to add that to the narrative. Is it ephemeral, is it permanent? Is it made of sand? Is it painted? What scale? Where is it located? All of these things are part of the narrative. If you look into any piece I’ve done, there’s always a story there. A woman who was giving thanks on a grand scale in the Northern part of France with a bunch of immigrant families – helping them get into school, medical care, housing. She’s done that for 20,000 people. Insane. I did her portrait, and it’s huge. If you look on Google Maps, you can see her. She deserves that.
Are your portraits all real people? Do you ever experiment?
It depends. Sometimes I’ll do a collage when I don’t want a real person. Like the piece I did at the National Mall for the Smithsonian, that was actually 50 photographs of 50 young men from different backgrounds and ethnic groups. I combined that to make a composite face, artistically. Of course it looks like an ethnic person. The piece is called Out of Many, One.
“There were a lot of good artists that just came and went, but never got any recognition.”
How did growing up near New York influence your artistic style?
I was born in Cuba and came over to America when I was 3 and moved to North Plainfield, New Jersey. It was a nice suburban town, a half-hour out of Manhattan. By the time I was 14, I would cut school and come into the city. My friends never understood the marvel that the city is. I was like “I’m gonna go to central park.” They thought I was crazy.
Going to CBGBs, Sunday Matinees, the music scene, the punk scene. I remember when Thompson Square Park was Tent City, before Giuliani came in with his Korean tank. It was beautiful and colorful. Johnny Swing had this thing on the corner of B made of scrap metal, it was fun. Very experimental. I used to play pinball with Lemmy (of Motorhead fame) on Macdougal. It was a fun, creative New York with crazy after hours.
New York really molded me. Meeting artists like Ron English, working with them. Shepard Fairey was just starting with his stickers, I don’t even think KAWS was around yet. There were a lot of good artists that just came and went, but never got any recognition. I was doing a bunch of this stuff before any social media. It wasn’t even called street art. It doesn’t really matter, but I’m so happy I lived through it.
How long did you live in New York before you moved to Spain?
I moved when I was 18, so about 15 years. I’ve been in Spain a while. I was going back and forth for a long time. Naomi Klein did a big spread in the Village Voice about me and it got a lot of attention.
I was really pushing this idea of doing “socially minded art” in the urban sphere, but people weren’t understanding it. That happened to a lot of us early on. She ended up using that article in the book No Logo. If you go into the culture jamming chapter, it’s basically that article.
Then weird things happened. Life happens. I had a big problem with a guy who was doing a documentary on me for the Chicago Film Festival. I told him to stop, he said sue me. I was a dirt poor artist trying to make ends meet. The idea of rent is a continuous threat. So, I started a gig doing graphic installation. Made money, sued him, he stopped.
My first son was born with a severe neurological condition, so art creation took the back seat for a while. One of the reasons I went to Barcelona was to take care of this kid. We had disagreements with the treatment he received here, so we decided to get out, and in Barcelona we could do that. There were alternative therapies. Now he’s 19 – he’s traveled the world. He can’t walk or talk, or chew. We don’t know how much of him is really in there, so we take him traveling with us. We have a traveling wheelchair and the whole deal. The way I’m looking at it is that I’m doing my Barcelona years. Two more kids came, and I started picking up art again.
I started doing these ephemeral charcoal things because I wanted to get away from the billboards. I felt that was a dead-end because you’re still giving attention to the ad that you’re parodying, and they knew it. And then big banner pieces were tagged at night on purpose by the people so it would get more attention in the press. So I realized it was a stylistic device that could be used both ways. So I cut it. From then on, I kept talking about social justice and the importance of the human endeavor.
“What I really want is artistic freedom. My goal now is to make enough money where I reach financial stability, because once I do, watch out. Because I’m free.”
When did you first start painting murals?
The first attempt was 2004 or 2005. Then I started going bigger and bigger. I never really drew on large scales, but I pushed myself in that direction. Now, I’m going more towards painting. I figured people would like the charcoal drawings because they were nice, they had a poetic sense to them – the way they would fade away. They were very individual. And festivals were like “no, we want it to be an outdoor museum. It has to stay for at least 10 years.”
That didn’t work, so I started painting a little bit. Slowly but surely, things came around. One of the things that I decided early on was I was going to do it on my terms, even though it wasn’t the easiest way to do it. Galleries don’t like the fact that you have more than one direction. It’s a style that’s recognizable – boom. Do that over and over. Look, I wanna be as wealthy as everybody else. But, at the same time, I don’t need a mansion or a Rolls Royce.
What I really want is artistic freedom. My goal now is to make enough money where I reach financial stability, because once I do, watch out. Because I’m free. I don’t wanna be tied a direction as an artist where my art is based on what sells to conservative collectors. When I say conservative, I don’t mean just in the art they buy, but also their political stance.
How have you noticed the art community evolving in its attitudes, especially toward your own art?
What I find is that there are extremely talented people in this world. Living in Catalonia, I have some of the most amazing street artists around me. Then there’s all the people you meet when you travel for projects. I have my own crazy niche.
My goal is to do things that are really out there. I really wanna push what street art is. The reason this is happening is because I started really early. But people didn’t know about me. When Swoon found out and she was like “you’re the same guy?” That kind of thing happens. You become friends with people this way. It’s curious, I’m a little bit of an outsider still because I’m not just that formula. I don’t think it should just be what people think it is. I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I’m a street artist, I’m a contemporary artist, I’m a land artist, I’m everything. But I come from this really unique thing that happened in Manhattan in the early 90s.
How did you get involved in the project you’re working on now?
Thibault Decker and Audrey had been working for Street Art Mankind for a while, and they wanted to do this project here with the International Labor Organization and the United Nations. They were able to get five pretty amazing walls. The big one at the Westin – they were talking to a couple different artists – but they finally decided on me. It was a lot of back and forth. It was sixteen different layouts, some were slight changes and some were drastic. This was over a course of two weeks, really fast. So one finally got accepted, and I know that it’s really a gift from the universe to get this kind of commission. And what’s being said and why it’s being done is totally what makes me tick. I’m really happy about it.
“Any new thing could be art. Some simple scribbles are genius.”
What do you think about the relationship between activism and art?
I’ve even heard the term “artivism.” I think that’s the best thing that’s come forward from this whole explosion of street art. It’s opened up the aperture and has allowed for so many possible directions in art, where everything is okay. It doesn’t matter. There’s one guy who thinks it’s hokey? He can think it, it doesn’t matter. I think a lot of the really cartoon-y, LA stuff is hokey. But that’s okay, that’s me.
The great thing is we’re not stuck in the 70s or 80s anymore. I still had professors who were like “that’s a great painting, but if you take that inch and make it bigger, it’s perfect because it’s abstract.” It’s good that all this can exist. After paintings like Guernica, which was painted by Picasso as a huge mural to travel and raise money by the Spanish refugees after the Civil War. Guernica was destroyed by German planes as a test for the Blitzkrieg, allowed by Franco. Damn that’s a powerful painting. It’s incredible. So why did those paintings stop for so many years? Because they wanted it to stop. Now, we’re at a time with Internet and all the pluralism. Any new thing could be art. Some simple scribbles are genius.
What’s the art culture like in Barcelona vs. somewhere like New York?
Every city is alive and has its history and its people and its changes. Cities are like growing organisms, they’re alive. You get things in Barcelona that you can’t get in New York and vice versa. In Barcelona, you walk through streets and you see Roman walls from the original fort, then it goes to Romanesque and then to Gothic, on the same wall..
“I’m a contemporary artist that comes from street art, that does street art, that loves street art.”
Do you look for the work or does the work look for you?
It’s a combination. There’s some projects I chase – I come up with the idea, I go out, and I do it. Then there are other ones where it’s an email that lands in your inbox. I actively work to open and expand horizons in other directions, not just street art. I have friends who have this conflict: am a contemporary artist or a street artist? I think it’s absolutely absurd.
I’m a contemporary artist that comes from street art, that does street art, that loves street art. I also love contemporary art. Why is there a delineation? There’s no reason. Sit down, and you talk to C215, a stencil artist from Paris, and that guy knows more about Caravaggio than anybody. Whenever I sat down to have a conversation with Blue, he was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. And I’ve talked to other artists who were supposedly high-minded, contemporary artists, and they’re complete fools. We’re lucky there’s this amazing thing happening and that there are these human beings who are creating that are just so incredible.
What advice would you give to a young artist with a message today?
I think it’s all phases. In the beginning, you have to get your information together, get a good body of work that you feel good about. That’s the best you can do. Then you go in for all the contests and awards, get your thing ready where you can send your material out. Once you have your first one, you can just edit it a little bit to make it fit. Do a Word file with deadlines for a while, because the more you get yourself in front of the jury – the curators – the better. That’s the first phase. After that, you just have to keep pushing your limits. It’s the 10,000 hours rule. When you hit 10,000 hours and you’re really confident in who you are, everything just flows. It’s based on this crazy thing called perseverance. No matter what. And also who you hang out with. Surround yourself with the people you want to be like.