His art tells former soldier's story


ANTONIO RODRIGUEZ'S mural-sized paintings surge with the currents of revolutions: passion and possibility, elation and despair. His vision of Latin America plays out in the magical realism of bulls and butterflies and women in dreamy states of resolve. Coursing through the show, on display at Towson State University, are various symbols of the power and impotency, which Rodriguez says marks the history of his people.

A former jungle commando for the U.S. Army in Panama, the 34-year-old Puerto Rican artist says a lot of the inspiration for these political paintings comes from the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A lot also comes from his own life.

One of the show's most monumental works, the 12 foot by 12 foot "Sea of Anguish," shows a blind cupid astride a flying horse, a greedy rich woman rasping demands, a bull with serpent's body rising from the water. The entire painting seems to swirl in a vortex of destiny.

"This is what I left behind, all that anguish," Rodriguez says. "I was a soldier for nine years. I've been in the jungle for a long time, and I saw people starving, I saw suffering, I saw mothers and childs alone crying in the street. I saw solitude, real solitude -- solitude emotional and solitude physical. I saw empty villages because the people was hiding and running away because there was the terror.

"That depressed me a lot. And that's why I want to talk. I want to talk with my painting. I want to make a statement. I'm not painting just to paint, I don't paint primarily for sale. I have a message. I was carrying a weapon in Central America, and I was teaching people how to kill each other there. I was in the wrong way. This is my way. My weapon is a brush."

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez began painting when he was 10, later attending his country's most exclusive fine arts college on a scholarship. He dropped out, however, because the national guard -- and later, the U.S. Army -- presented him with opportunities he says he couldn't refuse.

He became a staff sergeant and an instructor of jungle combat techniques at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama. He will not give any details about his work -- he was officially discharged two months ago -- but he spent five years in Panama as a military adviser while his wife and four children remained in Puerto Rico.

"I tried to avoid those kind of missions that would compromise myself. When that time came I said 'No, no, no, I'm not this kind of person. I'm Latino.' I took a military leave."

He went back to art school, intending to become a muralist. First, he studied in Puerto Rico, then at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He soon transferred to the graduate program at Towson and moved his family to Severn.

"Antonio can get images on canvas probably faster than anybody I've ever seen," says Jim Paulsen, graduate coordinator for the MFA program and head of the sculpture department. "He has a great sense of color and he's probably at his best when he's engaged in painting at this heroic size.

"His personality is very similar to his work: Very animated, colorful, bright, intense. Antonio's a very intense guy."

He's the sort of fellow who can paint and paint and paint -- then, turn up the salsa music on the stereo and paint some more.

"I come from a system that is very social and the people is very warm and they like to spend their times socializing," Rodriguez says. "I am very close to people. Everybody knows me here, that's the way I am. And my paintings have to be the way I am. I paint for the people, I paint for the society."

In Latin America, murals are one of the most traditional forms of art and political propaganda; Rodriguez grew up admiring many murals that contained "the perfume of the revolution," as he puts it. His own murals decorate various schools, hospitals and other public buildings throughout Puerto Rico.

The painters he most admires -- Mexicans Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueros and Americans Thomas Hart Benton and Leon Golub -- have all used their work to advocate social change.

"I don't want to present my paintings as propaganda," he says. "I want to present beauty and I want the people to think . . . One of my goals is to share with America what we have: Our moral values, our cultural background."

Some of the work in this show concerns the Latin American woman, perhaps because she represents so many of the contradictions of her society. As Rodriguez sees it, she struggles to shake the yoke of her culture while often demonstrating a passionate loyalty to many of its repressive traditions.

One painting juxtaposes the image of a sleeping baby girl caught in the coils of a Mayan feathered serpent with a dreamlike woman ready to step out of the body of a bull.

"This tells about the Latin American woman, the way she grows. The bull is the current system: Somoza, Noriega, Castro. . . . There is the woman trapped, now she emerging from it."

This particular vision was inspired by Marquez's tale "Innocent Erendira."

"It is the story of a young lady who was used by her own grandmother as a prostitute . . . and she escape from the grandmother one day. Here, in this painting, she escape from the bull. She conquers the system.

"One of the purposes to [being] an artist is to be very honest with yourself and with society. If you're not doing your historical moment as an artist, you are not giving something for the future generations to know about what life was at this moment.

Antonio Rodriguez's thesis exhibition, required for his master of fine arts degree, will run through Dec. 21 in the Holtzman Gallery in the Fine Arts Center of Towson State University. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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