Urban Sensibility: How Francisco Rodriguez Uncovers the City's Hidden Moments

India Dickinson
Nov 27, 2018 11:02AM

"To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed through words, so to convey this so that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art." - Leo Tolstoy

© Francisco Rodriguez, Courtesy Cooke Latham Gallery

Francisco Rodriguez cites Tolstoy to me when talking about the visual language he has crafted for his upcoming exhibition in London. In his rain-sodden Cambridge Heath studio, drinking tea and listening to Schubert, he is applying the final touches to the series titled ‘The Burning Plain’ – an austere collection of barren landscapes and menacing characters that form his mysterious, cinematic feeling world.

He talks to me about those hidden moments living in a city, when you walk around alone with just your own sensibility, a lone figure at night situating themselves within the broad expanses of their urban environment. These are moments that have captured many great artists across the mediums from Hopper to Lynch to Burial, yet this introspective mode, walking within the depths of urban night cut off from day-time hustle and bustle, is a sensibility he feels impelled to share through his own art, largely because, as Tolstoy would say, he wishes to convey that which others like him must surely feel as well. He tells me: “Every person with a little bit of sensibility, when walking during the night in any big city in the world, can feel a lot of things. They can feel the loneliness, violence, fear, silence, mysteriousness of their surroundings.”

His own take on urban sensibility has a dreamlike, otherworldly quality to it. He tells me that memories growing up with the trees, dogs and wastelands around Santiago form a key part of his palette. Many of his scenes feel cold and sparse, despite his assertion that many are actually supposed to reflect the heat of a city in summer. At other points, crooked-looking characters create a sinister sense of foreboding.

Francisco Rodriguez
Fence (III), 2017
India Dickinson

The series coheres to shape a world in which nothing particular is happening, but menace is always lurking, as lonesome characters wait around idly, smoking and grinning manically. He tells me: “In the series ‘The Burning Plain’ I’ve tried to generate a specific imaginary relating to a specific world or dimension. This world of images comes from a mix of memories and landscapes. I draw on all the landscapes of places I lived in when I was child growing up in Chile, but it’s not specific to these landscapes. They’re more drawn from my memories of them, and the feelings these memories leave.”

His paintings have a chilling effect, with twilight orange skies overlooking cold white plains and pale coat-clad figures. He paints the different fringes of urban time and space – in early morning, dusk and moonlit night, in the forests, docks and plains away from the city centre – but all within the same timeframe and atmosphere. When viewed together, the paintings could be seen as series of scenes from a graphic novel or Manga animation.

He admits a possible subliminal influence from watching anime movies like Akira growing up, particularly when it comes to the characters he depicts. He tells me: “Movies from the 80s and 90s, like Akira, are in some way in my mind. When I think about a character like Tetsuo in Akira, his face really sticks in my mind, so I mix that face with the feelings I have towards the landscapes of Santiago, with the sensation I felt when I was walking in the street as an 11-year old watching these movies. This all mixes together in my mind and influences the world and characters in the paintings.”

© Francisco Rodriguez, Courtesy Cooke Latham Gallery

‘The Burning Plain’ series certainly does have a cinematic feel, but when I posit that these scenes appear to suggest an underlying narrative, he disagrees, explaining: “I don’t want to be confined within a narrative when creating the paintings. Instead I want to create separate paintings but from the same world, which the viewer can connect in their own way, creating their own story. I don’t pretend to have a story here. It’s a world with different feelings.”

Traversing his world, unbounded by a specific narrative, it feels as though you are being invited to imbue your own cinematic gloss or reference to the world. He describes this as an invitation to contemplate the mystery of his world, a world which relates back to his universal but also idiosyncratic urban sensibility. The urban sensibility remains a difficult one to describe in precise terms. He speaks of it as akin to loneliness but not in the sense of feeling forlorn or isolated, but in respect to the feeling of lonesome introspection, coated within the urban environment of violence and fear.

Francisco Rodriguez
Fence (IV), 2017
India Dickinson

In another way, he is speaking of that feeling of being in your own world and yet surrounded by the worlds of others. The reason why he feels so compelled to share this world is because it is through having our own worlds and sensibilities within a city that we are at times able to preserve our senses of individual feeling, of living with our own perspective, our own window into and out of the inherent enormity of the city. In a sense he calls for the viewer to embark on their own process of world-creation in the city – either through the connecting together of his different scenes, or through reflecting on our own relating to the city, participating in a shared language of urban sensibility.

Tolstoy also once said that “art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” Francisco echoes Tolstoy again when telling me: “I want to show my own feeling, and to be a painter showing it, because I believe that everyone shares the same feeling. People feel or visualise it in different ways for sure, but when people feel something to my painting, that’s what it’s all about.”

Francisco Rodriguez
Fence (I), 2017
India Dickinson

In creating worlds to share with others, Francisco is not just sharing the feeling of living in a city, but he is also sharing that very world-building imaginative experience that all city dwellers go through when paving their way through their urban lives. This is perhaps what leads to its cinematic feel – his art draws on feelings and expressions of characters in film and literature because, like us all, he can’t help but be influenced by the most popular arts when creating his imaginary worlds in the city.

Each person carries their own experiences, memories and references in their lonesome walks through cities, lost in their imaginary worlds, relating to the secret sounds and textures of their environment. As an artist, Francisco lends us his own secret urban worlds and private sensibility, so that we may draw focus to our own.

By William Barns-Graham

Writer on the arts and culture

Songwriter under the alias William Patrick Owen




India Dickinson