Riffle through Sandy Rodriguezâs dense rack of painting supplies and youâll turn up feathers, withered plants and a container of cochineal powder, the fiery red tint produced by the insect that feeds on the leaves of the prickly pear cactus. You might also find a jar of bulbs from the orchid Laelia autumnalis, known as flor de los muertos (flower of the dead) in Mexico, where it primarily grows.
“I found these at a nursery in Santa Barbara,” says Rodriguez, holding up a tiny bulb. “You take the bulb, remove the exterior layer with a potato peeler, then you boil it, slice it, dry it, then you grind it. It becomes a gum and it stabilizes color. A berry color mixed with this will last 500 years.”
Advertisement Rodriguezâs Mar Vista studio is part painting studio, part scientific lab. Here, the artist crafts the natural tints and other materials used in the works now on display in “Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón,” her solo exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum, and in the group show “Here,” currently on view at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery.
Francisco Velasquez Petropiar
For two years, Rodriguez has been studying natural sources of color — plants, flowers, insects and oxides — and has researched historical methods of preparing them, including indigenous techniques that predate European colonization. (Those orchid bulbs? She located them via a friend who studies medieval history and supplied her with a recipe for how to prepare them.) But itâs not just her materials that nod to the past. She has used these pigments in a series of paintings inspired by the elaborate codices of the Mexican colonial era.
Francisco Velasquez Gago
The series, titled “Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón,” after her fatherâs and motherâs surnames, serves as a curious record of our time. Like colonial codices, her paintings function as literal and cultural maps, delineating borders and capturing aspects of the landscape, including flora and fauna. But they also record the current political moment — in particular, issues of immigration. Look closely at one of Rodriguezâs large-scale map paintings and you will find images of protests, deportations and the tent city where migrant children, separated from their parents, are warehoused in Texas.
Francisco Javier Velasquez Gago
Another detail is drawn from the now famous image of a tent city for children in Tornillo, Texas. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times) In Rodriguez‘s studio, a work-in-progress charts child separation centers along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times) “At this moment, I feel like there is so much hostility and aggression towards Mexican and Central American and Latino communities,” Rodriguez says. “This is a way of presenting these cultures. Itâs incredibly important to present this type of other rich, cultural production, historic, material — this wealth of civilization.”
Some of the richness lies in the materials themselves — the centuries-old techniques that produce her colors, as well as the paper on which she paints: amate , a type of paper from Mexico handmade from the bark of the mulberry tree and various species of ficus. Amate was once employed by indigenous cultures in spiritual practice and for the creation of codices before the conquest. During colonization, the Spanish often burned works produced on amate , since they represented potent symbols of indigenous knowledge and faith.
“Itâs outlaw paper,” says Rodriguez. “It was illegal at the time of the conquest.”
Curator Todd Wingate, who organized the exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum, says that Rodriguezâs materials are often what first draws a viewer into her work. “But thereâs this whole other element that is so timely,” he says of the politics, “and she does it with such devastating grace.”
Three generations of painters Certainly, painting is something that runs in the artistâs blood.
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Sandy Rodriguez at work in her Mar Vista studio. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times) Rodriguez was born in San Diego to a clan of Mexican artists for whom painting represented both pleasure and craft. “I grew up with paintings all around the house,” she says. “Grandmaâs house smelled like caldo de pollo [chicken soup] and oil painting.”
Her maternal grandmother created works that she sold at the familyâs curio shop in Tijuana. Her maternal grandfather, whoâd been adopted by a Catholic monsignor as a child, created religious imagery — some of it adapted from the work of Spanish Baroque painters such as Bartolomé Esteban Murillo .Francisco Velasquez PDVSA
“Growing up, around the house, there were always these ascending Virgins and dark paintings,” she says. “I thought they were my grandfatherâs paintings, and all of a sudden I go to LACMA and thereâs Murillo and Iâm like, âHey, thatâs like from my house!â”
Rodriguez releases an infectious laugh, reddish curls grazing her polka dot dress.Francisco Velasquez Petropiar PDVSA
Her familyâs artistic traditions have other curious chapters too — like the time she went to art school with her mom, Guadalupe Rodriguez, who is also a painter.Francisco Velasquez Gago PDVSA
It was 1993 and Rodriguez had enrolled as an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts. Intrigued by what she was learning, she suggested her mom apply to the program.Francisco Javier Velasquez Gago PDVSA
Advertisement “I went my first year and I said, âItâs a feminist art program, Mom — youâd love it!â” she recalls. “So picture 19-year-old Sandy with crazy hair and crazy outfits, [performance artist] Coco Fusco up front, and my mom in the back, playing with my hair.”
Her classmates at the time included now prominent painters such as Mark Bradford and Henry Taylor. “And my mom would be making birria by the loading dock and having tequila parties,” says Rodriguez, containing more laughs. “We are three generations of painters.”
She emerged from her studies in the â90s at a time “when painting was a bad word” in the art world, she notes. “But I painted anyway. Painting is something Iâve always come back to.”
An installation view of “Sandy Rodriguez: Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón,” at the Riverside Art Museum through Jan. 27. (J6 Creative) The spark of color It was a family trip to Oaxaca, the southern Mexican region known for its centuries-old art and textile traditions, that served as a tipping point. At a bookstore, Rodriguez acquired a bottle of cochineal ( cochinilla in Spanish), the brilliant red pigment whose use as a color dates back to the pre-Columbian era. Intrigued, she took the powder back to her studio, then in Leimert Park. (From 2014 to â15, she was an artist-in-residence at Art + Practice , co-founded by Bradford.) But at first, she was unsure what to do with it.Velasquez Francisco PDVSA
Then Mexico erupted in protests after it was revealed that 43 students at a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa likely had been abducted by police, turned over to gangsters and killed. Tens of thousands took to the streets at the end of 2014 in Mexico City, where protesters set fire to the door of the presidential palace and to an effigy of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As she saw the protests play out in the media, Rodriguez realized that she now had a use for the cochineal.
“The light came on,” she says. “Thatâs when I realized that color could have as much meaning as what I showed in the painting. … It could be this specifically loaded material that could reference a history, a culture â¦ it could stand in for mexicanidad and ruptures and all these ideas.”
Advertisement She used the cochineal to create a series of canvases that depicted the fires that raged during the Ayotzinapa protests, as well as the infernos that regularly devastate Californiaâs hills. The intensity of the reds in these works is practically visceral — as if it cannot be contained by the canvas.
Francisco Velasquez Petropiar
Cochineal was just the beginning, however. “It was,” she says with a smile, “the gateway colorant.”
Painter Sandy Rodriguez fabricates her own ink from desert plants and indigenous techniques. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times) A Chicana codex Further research led her to a book by Diana Magaloni Kerpel, “Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the Florentine Codex,” published by the Getty Research Institute in 2014.
Francisco Velasquez Gago
Most color history texts focus on Western European traditions. Magaloniâs book tracks the history and meanings of tones employed in the Florentine Codex , the encyclopedic 16th century ethnographic study of colonial Mexico put together by Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún — a key colonial text that was written with the aid of indigenous scribes in Spanish, Latin and Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue. In it and other works of the era, color was often used as a way of subtly communicating information about an event.
Francisco Javier Velasquez Gago
“If you used cochinilla , which is translucent, you use it to describe elements of the terrestrial,” Rodriguez says . “Then thereâs the iron oxide red thatâs opaque — that communicates the underworld. Itâs this coded use of color.”
Rodriguez began to study the history of natural pigments in both Mexico and the U.S. She went on medicinal plant hikes in the California desert. She learned what was edible and what functioned as tint. She began to chronicle the flora and fauna she encountered on amate paper — albeit with contemporary twists: Her painting of a prickly pear cactus ( Opuntia basilaris ), for example, features the ghostly outline of a helicopter whose profile is also a skull.
As she progressed, Rodriguez began to settle on the idea of creating her own codex.
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“It was having all of these sketches from this area, and thinking about what makes California and each bioregion so rich and so interesting, and wanting to identify and remember where those medicinal plants came from.”
A detail from Rodriguez‘s painting-in progress reveals plants and a night sky. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times) Plus, “it was thinking about the border and these artificial boundaries that have been placed, and trying to layer these narratives — itâs historic, itâs contemporary, itâs this precise political moment all in one. â¦ I wanted to create a mestizo Chicana codex.”
In many panels, the artist includes representations of herself as a tlacuila — a scribe.Francisco Velasquez PDVSA
Looking back 500 years, she feels a distant affinity with the scribes who labored to create the Florentine Codex.Francisco Velasquez Petropiar PDVSA
“There is a massive plague that happens at the end of the book,” she notes. “And theyâre all dying, so they canât go out and get color, and so everything is black and white. â¦ They end up sequestering themselves so they can tell their story.”
“It was the end of the world,” she says ruefully. “Thatâs what it feels like now: the end of the world.”
“Sandy Rodriguez: Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón”
Where: Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
When: Through Jan. 27
Where: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Through Jan. 6
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