Mark Rodriquez at his New York art show last year.

State of Art in Fresno

It’s hard not to like Mark Rodriguez. Maybe it’s something about the lines around his eyes when he is smiling. Which is something he does often when talking about what he loves to do and has been doing professionally his entire adult life. Rodriguez is an artist.

He is also a good friend. Recently, I had dinner with him, celebrating his 55th birthday. “I was 20 years old when I moved into my first studio 35 years ago in downtown Fresno, and still maintain a studio in the area. Art has always been my primary goal and job,” he said while we enjoyed a couple of drinks together.

If you ask Rodriguez what type of artist he is, he’ll probably reply succinctly that he is a contemporary artist born in Fresno. But Fresno is simply a point of origin for Rodriguez, who has had his work exhibited in premiere galleries in Manhattan, Russia, Tokyo and Italy.

These days, he is excited about his new installation, opening September 10, at the Fresno Art Museum entitled CruciFiction. “It’s an observation on humanity at a turning point as we enter the digital era 21st century. The installation solicits the question: Will this chapter in history be a blessing or a curse?” Rodriguez commented.

This epic work features hardbound books impaled with hand-forged iron nails. For someone who loves books, I find this mammoth project is nothing short of shocking. There is something virulent in the reaction seeing a spike driven into a copy of, say, The Lost Horizon, that makes me wince like an altar boy at the Stations of the Cross.

It reminds me of the nightmare vision of Ray Bradbury. It would be fitting and proper if there was a copy of Fahrenheit 451 staked in this crucifix. However, in Bradbury’s prophetic world, books met their demise at the hands of an illiterate narcissistic sheep-like society controlled by a “big brother” style government that had no use for books. In fact, he saw them as a threat. In this landmark book, recently the subject of the Fresno County Library’s “Big Read,” Bradbury predicted big screen television sets in every room. What he did not foresee was the extent of the digital age we have embarked on.

As writer Robert Levine points out, “During the very time Mark Rodriguez was literally driving his stakes through the books in this exhibit, Steven Jobs was rolling out the first iPads, which, at last count, are selling at about a million a month and transforming the publishing industry.”

It is obvious the digitized world has already come down the pike and is here to stay, and old school types like me have the choice of either joining in or getting out of the way. If you’re like me, being a part of it is not easy, especially when you’re not sure what a Kindle™ is, let alone still learning stuff like the existence of the “reply all” function on Microsoft Outlook e-mail.

Like the woman in Bradbury’s book who, when confronted by the firefighters who ironically start fires by incinerating books, decides she’d rather go down in flames with her Shakespeare and Voltaire than live in a society where there are no musty smelling, space cluttering books, the message behind Rodriguez’s work is a deeply personal one with me. I would miss my Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote. They write of places where I can find refuge from my problems on an insomnia-plagued night by reading about people who’ve had it far worse than I’ve ever had it. The book’s well-worn spine opened on the kitchen table to butter-toast-stained pages I read while waiting for a tea kettle to whistle. So you see, I would miss books. I would also miss art galleries.

Fresno recently lost the Metropolitan Museum and, by most accounts, damn near lost the Fresno Art Museum too.

The art museum’s current financial health can best be described by the person closest to it. That would be Fresno Art Museum Executive Director Linda Cano. We asked Cano what direction the art museum is heading. “One year ago, the Fresno Art Museum (FAM) Board of Trustees was considering closing the doors of the museum. This year, for the first time in eight or nine years, the museum’s finances have been in the black every month. So, yeah, the rumors that FAM was struggling were not only true, they were an understatement,” she responded.

She went on to explain, “However, with the assistance of The James Irvine Foundation and the guidance of Museum Management Associates, which provided crisis management, we were able to turn things around. The board made difficult, painful decisions, and through diligent governance, focused financial oversight and thoughtful, inclusive strategic planning, the board, staff and volunteers have put the museum back on track.”

Cano also shared her vision for the Fresno Art Museum. “Museums are no longer just places for art to hang on the walls. Today, in museum studies, the visitor is referred to as the ‘self aware’ visitor. Museum-goers are looking for experiences. They want to be educated, challenged, engaged with the art they see. In order to do this, programs need to be built around exhibitions, so that requires advance planning. Shows need to be relevant to the community that they serve, and visitors need to interact with and ‘buy into’ what they view. Our challenge will be to accomplish these goals, and keep our standards high as an accredited museum. I envision a mix of what has been historically successful and some exhibitions that push the envelope a bit by being more culturally diverse, globally oriented, issue driven and edgy.”

And edgy is a good way to describe Rodriguez’s CruciFiction. In fact, pretty much all of Rodriguez’s art can be described as edgy.

Opening simultaneously with Rodriguez’s exhibit at the museum in September will be Kathryn Jacobi’s Night Travelers and Other Waking Dreams. Cano writes that “Kathryn is a world-class artist whose work I have admired for quite a while. She paints in the humanist vein of the Northern and Spanish masters but with her tho-roughly contemporary conceptual realist approach. Her work has been shown all over the world.” She is also part of the FAM’s Council of 100 Distinguished Women Artists.

So it looks as if we still have an art museum, and although Rodriguez’s CruciFiction is certainly food for thought, we still have the printed word too. How much longer books and museums can hold out might be something to ponder, but it is reassuring to know there are artists out there such as Rodriguez ready to beg the question and open up our eyes a little bit in the process. And I emphasize, I’m not just saying this because I like him as a friend. Rather, you have to respect someone who invests all his/her professional time and energy into a project designed to simply get people to think.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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