Kenny Rivero: I Can Love You Better at Shin Gallery
December 12, 2014 to February 28, 2015
322 Grand Street, between Orchard and Ludlow streets
New York City, 212-375-1375
With visual wit, mastery of a broad range of painting techniques, a sharp sense of evocative color – now upbeat, now poignant -and ingenuity as to where to use what to optimum effect, Kenny Rivero introduces the viewer to the New York of his Dominican-American childhood. Intimations of personal and familial history are the starting points of fantasy and imagination. In his depictions of the neighborhood there are the lingering presences of former tenants, past lives, people departed. A compendium of paintings and drawings are displayed in a vivid and lovingly achieved installation devised to recall the actual rooms he grew up in, with patches of linoleum, peeling wall paper and shards of glass atop dividing walls (to prevent intruders). Extending the dialogue of framed works and their installation, some of his paintings have objects attached to them or else use ad hoc materials: a piece of felt, a metal number, machine-embroidered curtain.
In richly inventive, often beautiful, sometimes quirky imagery, Rivero presents us with a gamut of sites from the Washington Heights neighborhood where he grew up. Mysterious, enchanting, or threatening, it is a place of vacant streets or else streets packed with vignettes of the city’s hustle and rush of energetic doings, its fleeting images, glimpsed curiosities. A mischievous verve and disarming sly humor propel a number of the largest paintings, the commotion of figures and burst of objects set against sophisticated constructs of sharply formed, angular planes of flat, saturated color. The denizens of these very urban scenes may be charmingly appealing—cartoonish characters that are slightly askew—managing to transmit, at the same time, and with aesthetic sophistication, an endearing, guileless innocence. With a Klee-like, -seeming naif’s first time view, the vision is one of wonder. At the same time, it is somewhat scary, in the way a child might encounter people or glanced odd parts of them: disembodied running legs, feet, a suspended head, or even the shadow of a figure without a person in sight.
I Can Love You Better, the exhibition’s title, is from a 1997 Mary J. Blige record, but, no longer addressed to a sweetheart, is a loving, if sometimes raucous tribute to the neighborhood of his youth. A grand but derelict building in the ‘Heights is reimagined as the entrance to a baseball stadium. The Church is Empty (all works, 2014) is a moving tribute to a deserted church at night, illumined from within, its colored windows aglow. Ubiquitous walls are neither monotonous nor undecorative as the patiently delineated small bricks become a pattern of reassuring regularity, rather than dismal or dreary. In Kitchen Shadow interiors with nicely even square-tiled floors form wonderfully dependable and satisfying grids. Indeed, there is an appealing if tamped down and canny decorative element throughout this show which makes the presentation of difficult subject matter by turns tender or wryly sardonic and certainly more palatable. Rivero makes reference to violence in images of empty sidewalks, an ominous alley, the silhouette of a friend who died.
Upside-down heads and dislodged floating objects signal upheaval, but with a whimsy and playfulness that is the artist’s own. Baseball, another recurrent motif, comes to the fore as an important part of Rivero’s dual history as a Dominican-. American, as the sport is appreciated in both countries. It is also a passion he shared with his father.
Hovering numbers and letters make cryptic if fond allusions to family and friends: 55, for instance, is the number of his boyhood apartment, while there are references to girlfriends and comrades (Louis, Manuel). Enigmatic digits turn out to be local area codes. Near a fallen figure are the “EEES” of fright (It Happened on the Corner). Decorative balconies refer to architecture both in New York and the Dominican Republic (where he spent summers). There are also small, knowing, but not necessarily readily recognizable citations of other artists from the well-schooled (Yale MFA) Rivero, subtle, unobtrusive salutes to the likes of Stuart Davis, Philip Guston, Jasper Johns. These notations enrich the composition with their multiple associations, humor, and art historical homages.
Sharply delineated yet delicate, careful pencil drawings on salvaged or reused paper and pieces of card riff on his own imaginative life. These include coming of age self-portraits in various tragi-comic guises. In one he gets bigger and stronger, his mother at his side, while in another he is essentialized to his running legs, a flashlight at the ready to, as he puts it, escape. Several drawings originate in childhood heroes like the wealthy Bruce Wayne / Batman with his special powers to help the poor. There is a boy in a hapless batman costume, who is nonetheless transformed. Hair and short filaments come into play in one group of drawings, for barber shops are another locus through which Rivero came to understand his identity and aspirations. His father took him to a Dominican barbershop; in New Haven and Spain barbers were puzzled as to how to approach his hair. Rivero employs a variety of drawing techniques: there are endearing childlike drawings of cars and comic characters like Cuco Dancing, but there are also romantic drawings of fine, somewhat spindly ink lines, seemingly quick, impromptu, direct, yet bracingly erotic. Defenders of the Universe, for instance, presents an amorous, slightly ungainly, but no less happily triumphant couple in which the sweet young thing is embraced by a fellow who fingers her breast.
Rivero, who wears his great skills and tender paeans to place offhandedly, is a consummate storyteller, at ease with poetic invention. His imagery is particular but not at all insular. As with all the best art, through command of his expressive vehicle he is able to give his world tremendous immediacy, and to make it generously open to all.