There aren’t many instances where you encounter a Matisse painting, a Windows internet browser, Leonardo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a poodle, and a bag of lime wedges in one painting. But when you see all of these elements converge in one of Nicolas Romero’s paintings, which range from canvas-size to building-size, you quickly realize the objects, characters, and iconography aren’t thrown together arbitrarily, but rather are strategically chosen and placed.
Romero builds each piece with a menagerie of competing components — things he usually picks up on in a specific location and that represent the geographic culture, or that play into a larger underlying message or critique of contemporary consumer culture. Romero performs a balancing act as he expertly finesses each element into a painted shrine-like sculpture that once all fastened together, takes on all new meaning.
Although Romero lives and works out of Buenos Aires, he’s currently holed up in Barcelona for what was supposed to be a twenty-day art residency before the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders. And although there may be no clear end date in sight, Romero insists he’ll remain busy in the studio. I caught up with Romero to talk about his current productivity, his painted still-life style, and how he so gracefully uses color in his pieces.
You’re from Buenos Aires and continue to live and make work there. Tell me about growing up there.
Buenos Aires is a very chaotic city. It is a system that seems to be on the verge of collapse, but which continues with its improvised course. It is a city that invites you to be outside your home. I’m the son of a nursing student and a journalist. Middle class family in a country where you can be poor overnight. My childhood was always going out on the streets with my friends, looking for other friends. We always played fútbol on the street. I always lived near downtown of the city, where I could see demonstrations or protests. There were always large numbers of people doing something on the street. I think Buenos Aires generated that curiosity to be “outside” and I think graffiti enhanced it. The fact of enjoying what is outside my house and being able to appropriate it or capitalize it.
How do you think Buenos Aires has contributed to your creativity and the work you make now?
The city provided me with a lot of information within its chaos; it was vital for my creativity. First, because the city was so chaotic, painting on the street was not a priority for the police to bust, that is, the police had to deal with serious things, rather than a boy who paints on the street. And when you have the freedom to experiment with that observer, the possibilities become endless. Buenos Aires is a hyper-cultural city, but budgets for culture are very limited. So as an artist you try to generate your projects the best and most you can, bu they come about more organically. We cannot depend on anyone, we just do it. I think that this way of looking at life, which is basically not knowing what will happen tomorrow, is what motivates me in my day-to-day. The street is an improvised system, the artist is too.
What was your first introduction to art?
My first introduction to art came from my parents. They bought me some books that came with a video that I could watch about the history of the great painters of the twentieth century. I was amazed by Van Gogh and became a fanatic of his works. I had the feeling that he painted them with the concept of “fever”, all the lines and paint brushes gestures. As a child I had ear infections that made me suffer a lot. I always kept seeing Van Gogh’s self-portraits without an ear as a solution for ear infections.
How did you eventually move from graffiti to working on canvas?
I think it was a natural process. As my work in the public space was developing, it also made me understand that I needed my own internal spaces to be able to experiment and dialogue with myself. The result of this need are the paintings.
How did you eventually came to the painted still-life style pieces you have been creating most recently?
I believe that societies are evolving rapidly. Our source of access to truth is in our pocket and vibrates — your phone. New forms of gender are being discussed and are breaking with many old thoughts. Contemporary society is thirsty for pleasure and it seemed that before these changes I also needed to change myself. I found that with my old self, I couldn’t describe the world that was happening through my eyes.
I understand that we live in a consumer society, and that we have wrongly correlated that what we consume represents us as a person, from the political to the ethical. So I wanted to work with this idea — it seemed to me that I could move more freely with these new contemporary symbols. For example, I can count the migratory evolution of a city in Mexico with a Tupperware or to-go box from an Asian restaurant. Every object is marked by a history that crosses a society horizontally (within capitalism) — it’s interesting how an object achieved what communism could not. Capitalism managed to get the “political concept” out of a system and now we base our freedoms through consumption.
You use a range of iconography and cultural visual references in your pieces. Where do you draw inspiration from most for the objects, people, and animals you put into your pieces?
I try to work around traces that I find in a space and that are the result of aspects of social life, or symbols that represent this very context. The symbols are the result of the coexistence of different factors — economic, social and cultural — which define practices and representations: from a plastic bottle of a drink that is fifty-percent cheaper than Coca-Cola, an orange from a public school lunch, or even the image of Jesus perched in house windows for good luck. Shown together, these objects signal human absence, but also, in contradiction, fully represent the human being. These areas of exploration can change and adapt daily by the artistic experience itself.
The conclusions always lead to the public space, which has been the focus of my research because of its boundary between the collective and the individual and the possibility for the convergence of different social sectors. The intervention of art within a systematized context governed by other rules and consequences informs the construction of my individual thought.
Your pieces are layered with color and competing elements — a bounce house, a red bell pepper, and a security camera — how do you start a new piece? How much research and planning goes into a new piece?
The pieces are sometimes experiential, which means these are elements that pass through me. When they pass through me they mix with my emotional, political, and cultural criteria. I choose symbols that catch my attention. By painting them I try to approach them from the only way I found to get emotionally closer.
Do you feel like your work stands as a social criticism or commentary in some instances? Why you think it is important to have something to say in your work?
The question is interesting, in a way I think that my work in the public space has a political criteria. I have long thought that modifying a common space that is the street is a political action. Buildings are representations of power. For example, a company has a large building with its name on top, if we think about it it is like graffiti, but with much more money. The people who have questions, we have the street, and we feel that it belongs to us, and that appropriation is political.
In some of your pieces, there’s this convergence between the “old world” (a matisse painting, a Greek-like statue) and our “new world” (internet browser windows, Mountain Dew). Why is it important to include visual references that span generations/time periods?
I believe that everything was invented in art and that we owe it to the Great Masters. When I try to paint a Matisse painting it’s because I try to see how I think about it, what feelings I generate.
Let’s talk color. Using as much color as you do is not easy. What is your relationship to color? How do you go about pairing colors in a single piece?
My relationship with color is due to graffiti, that search to combine colors, trying to be as visual as possible. I also think I’m influenced by street advertising.
Are there any reoccurring visual references you include in your pieces?
Si, I love to paint peppers. I read that Van Gogh wrote to his brother saying he wanted to become the best painter of sunflowers. He did it. I want to do the same with the pepper. I don’t think I will succeed, but at least I’m going to try!
You’re currently quarantined in Barcelona. How are you doing? How has quarantine affected your creativity?
I am doing a residency with the gallery that I work with in Barcelona and with a German clothing company. The residency plan was for twenty days, which focused on working with elements of the neighborhood where I live. The project went from taking the work from the outside to the inside; I generally work the other way around. The residency will continue until who knows when.
But I think I carry this process easily. I consider myself an artist who has moments of extreme sociability. But I also isolate myself a lot in my studio to paint. I think I’m doing the same, only now I’m getting fatter.
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