Snakes and Ladders

In San Antonio, two artists explore hidden geometries of the city.

The River Walk in San Antonio.
The River Walk in San Antonio. Wikimedia Commons

Living in a city can deaden our instinct for noticing environment. Caught up in our day-to-day lives, we walk — or, especially in Texas, drive — through our cities without giving much consideration to either the superstructures of urban design that define our paths or the secret world of living things that thrive in the recesses of our man-made spaces. One of the many things that visual art can do is help us notice again, to think more deeply about what our eyes normally race past.

Raul Gonzalez and Daniel Rios Rodriguez, whose art is on display at San Antonio’s Artpace through August 18, both invite this sort of shift in the viewer. They begin from abstraction or a stripped-down image and follow their instincts toward compositions that steer clear of any obvious meaning or politics. At the same time, both have developed evocative visual languages that guide our eyes and thoughts toward a certain set of reflections about our physical surroundings.

Taken together, these two San Antonio artists unintentionally summon a dialogue reminiscent of the ancient board game “Snakes and Ladders.” From below, on Artpace’s ground floor, Gonzalez’s angular, latticed designs in duct tape thrust the viewer’s imagination upward, evoking buildings, grids, pipework and power lines. Meanwhile, on the second floor, Rodriguez’s serpentine sculptures and dream-symbol canvases draw us back down into the grass, mud and murky waters of the River City’s collective unconscious.

Rodriguez was born in Killeen and grew up all over the world as an Army brat, though with strong family ties to San Antonio. He says his Artpace show, “Bruisers,” comes out of an obsession he developed with snakes on a stretch of the San Antonio River near his house. Since settling there five years ago, Rodriguez has made work revolving around found items and wildlife he encounters on daily walks by the river. He also has a longstanding interest in what he calls “essential forms” — the spiral, for instance, in one body of work, and the snake in this one. “Bruisers” combines his twin interests in the local and the universal, exploring the snake as an archetype while also making reference to the very literal snakes that he knows often surround him, hidden, on his river walks.

Daniel Rios Rodriguez  Photo courtesy of artist

Rodriguez’s exhibition space at Artpace is dominated by a table teeming with coiled snake sculptures, featuring materials ranging from rope and wire to metal ducts and electrical conduits. The show title, “Bruisers,” refers to a slang term the artist and his friend use for people with a strong physical presence, who struggle to exist in the world but emerge victorious and tough. He hopes his works can have the same kind of existence — coming into the world on their own terms, thriving regardless of his intentions for them. He speaks of his show as an experiment in seeing if these creatures could survive an excursion outside his house. They do.

Rodriguez makes snake paintings, too. These feel more Jungian, rooted in anthropology and dream symbolism, though he says he’s not interested in psychological theory. (He does frequently dream of snakes, however.) In contrast to the industrial materials which make his sculptures feel like a repurposing of city trash, the paintings are cleaner, based around simple shapes, patterns and color fields, simultaneously more symbolic and less mysterious, more scaled and less poisonous than the sculptures. Each painting, Rodriguez says, is inspired by an individual relationship in his life. Though the meanings are illegible, there’s a sense of a pictorial, nearly hieroglyphic language, inspired by the art of traditional and indigenous societies.

Terco, 2019. Oil on terra cotta.  Daniel Dios Rodriguez, Image courtesy of Kerlin Gallery, Dublin Ireland

Downstairs, Raul Gonzalez’s duct-tape mural “Front to Back, and Side to Side” is a different kind of vision — faster, cheaper, more out-of-control, more a part of the city’s streets than the soil breathing underneath. Gonzalez, whose first love is drawing, grew up in Houston and has named his mural after a song by hometown rap heroes UGK; he says he dances to hip-hop as part of his composition method when creating large-scale duct-tape works. His mural captures a certain colorful, bustling rhythm, all parallel lines interrupted by curves and swoops, that is easy to associate with hip-hop.

Gonzalez’s past work features realistic portraits of laborers and depictions of his life as a stay-at-home father. He says he likes to build large-scale duct tape murals as a change of pace, because they offer him the chance to move around. The Artpace mural is his first attempt to make a duct-tape project speak to its immediate environment. For the side of the mural facing Main Avenue in downtown San Antonio, Gonzalez has tried to mimic lines of shadow and glare cast by nearby buildings on the glass of Artpace’s façade.

Here and there in “Front to Back, and Side to Side,” observant viewers will notice small gestures that link Gonzalez’s work to Rodriguez’s upstairs. These are the little clumps of extra tape that he has placed (or allowed his daughters to place) at intervals all around the massive mural. Gonzalez says he sees these mixed-confetti hues, interruptions in the otherwise streamlined geometries of solid color, as references to the tiny plants and animals that would quickly take over if humans abandoned their cities — hidden snakes, if you will, among the ladders of San Antonio’s steady growth.

Michael Agresta, an Austin resident, has written for Slate, the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

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