The Interwoven Modernism of Darian Rodriguez Mederosby John Sevigny

Stacy Conde
Jun 6, 2016 3:03PM

by John Sevigny

One could be forgiven for dismissing Darian Rodriguez Mederos’ large, technically masterful and tightly-cropped portraits as a Cuban attempt to rework the photo realism of Chuck Close. Such shallow comparisons have been made in my presence and will surely continue. We live in complicated times when people want easy answers and the high-end of the art market almost seems to intentionally confuse. When confronting a piece of art, the path of least resistance is to look at the visual ancestry to which it intentionally or unintentionally alludes. One example might be Jackson Pollock’s debt to Claude Monet, for it was the Frenchman who invented all-over painting, and not Jack the Dripper. In the case of Mederos, comparisons to Close are almost inevitable but they say nothing.

What interests me most about Mederos’ work is that it makes him an anomaly. His work does not square with the esthetics of the 21st Century, an age of the sad fossils of ready-mades, neon-and-plastic minimalism and conceptualism with no concepts to back it up.

To begin with, Mederos paints. That in and of itself should not surprise anyone if it weren’t for the fact that painting was supposed to have died during the late 20th Century. I was in New York in the late eighties when the movers and shakers threw painting under the bus and replaced it with rocks, metal globs and bars of motel soap lined up on printer paper. That was, of course, always the simplified, art mag version of the story. Even as minimalist sculptor Carl Andre was doing whatever it is he did when he wasn’t plotting to kill his wife Ana Mendieta, painting heavyweights Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Terry Winters were getting themselves into today’s art history books.

Mederos also clearly knows his art history, which is rare today. His paintings are heavily informed by a past that goes far beyond Chuck Close. Some of his strongest work, including a 2016 self portrait, draws on several generations of post-Caravaggio tenebrists including Rembrandt, Rubens and Diego Velazquez.

Some of his less nostalgic paintings are just as good. Preserving Father in Time, 2016, shows us an undeniably contemporary man lit elegantly from his right in a crystalline, white light. This is miles away from what Rembrandt aimed to do with his early portraiture, which was to flatter the rich but Calvinist merchant class, in short, people who could afford to commission portraits in a post-Martin Luther Northern Europe. Mederos’ portrait gives us a man on the dim, sad end of middle age.

Generally, Mederos handles light and volume with great skill and he lacks nothing when it comes to working with texture and detail. In a number of portraits, however, he drops his focus on the sculptural depth that highlights his best work. As a result, some of his paintings look flat, particularly those in which the subject is set against brighter backgrounds. “Jahzel” is one example. Whether this is an intentional exploration of flatness-versus-depth or a technical area the artist needs to polish only Mederos knows. But he clearly has the technical and historical tools at hand to work the issue out. He already paints better than Lucien Freud did at the same age.

One final thing that sets Mederos apart is that his work necessarily points to the battle between tradition and Modernism, a fight many people believe ended decades ago, and which was mostly misunderstood to begin with. To quote Clement Greenberg, the great art movements of the 20th Century were never direct attacks on the past, but rather, re-examinations of it.

“The avant-garde’s principal reason for being,” Greenberg wrote in 1968, “is … to maintain continuity: continuity of standards of quality–the standards, if you please, of the Old Masters.”

The idea is relevant to Mederos and his work. The artist was born, raised and trained in a post-Revolutionary Cuba where the Soviet buttressed walls of isolation closed the nation off to contemporary Western thought from 1959 onward, which is to say, the year Mark Rothko backed out of his lucrative commission to decorate the Four Seasons in Manhattan.

Cuban art training remained highly academic and focused on either an apolitical or Russo-centric narrative of art history. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The best Modernist painters knew what they were doing with pencil or brush, from Picasso to Mondrian, from Joseph Beuys, a greatly underrated draftsman, to Willem de Kooning. And every artist’s view of art history is shaped by historical, social and cultural factors.

But one risk for young artists from such backgrounds is they may never escape traditionalism. They may end up pigeonholed as defenders of a past that is no longer interesting. It is safe to say that Modernism dictates that the past is a critical link to the future. And that’s actually been the case for as long as art has existed.

Artists who deal with the past without keeping their eyes on the horizon face the danger of appearing anachronistic, conservative, or the worst thing anyone can be called in the present art market, “old fashioned.” “Normal” Norman Rockwell, who was not such a bad painter, was mocked throughout the late 20th Century. Rafael Soyer, a Russian-born New Yorker who clung to 19th Century Social Realism and ignored or condemned the upheavals of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and color field painting, suffered the same fate. Whether Mederos will be able to keep one foot in the past while maintaining an eye on the future will be what determines his success or failure on a larger level. It’s not that it should be that way. But that’s the way it is.

Mederos is a young, powerful painter and a credit to a growing, community of artists in Miami who are competent, promising and passionate. He is damned good now. He will get technically better with time, as everyone does. How the art world receives him depends almost entirely on how he views and approaches his own work in the near future.

—  John Sevigny is a photographic artist, writer and teacher who is seldom in any one place very long. A seasoned, bilingual public speaker. A German Expressionist who can’t paint. An armchair art historian and lover of the Great Books.

Sevigny was born in Miami and lives and works in Latin America. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois in the United States, and also in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Holland.

Stacy Conde