For over thirty years, Arnaldo Roche Rabell has painted emotionally charged self-portraits that communicate intense physical and psychological states. Although his multifaceted representations of the self are based on personal experiences and come from deep within, his work investigates such universal themes as history, culture, race, class, religion, politics, personal and collective identity, loss, and a sense of belonging. Roche Rabell's oeuvre is an extended questioning of the human condition.
The first self-portraits Roche Rabell exhibited date from 1981 when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Similarly, in this self-portrait, painted ten years later while he was still living in Chicago, Roche Rabell's face occupies the entire picture plane, and his stark, penetrating gaze brings the spectator and artist together in a powerful encounter. His representations of his own visage, probe the dualities of darkness and light, man and nature, spirit and flesh, self and other.
In Autorretrato, 1991, the sunken eyes and furrowed brow evoke agony, and the parted red lips express a desire to communicate. The white leaves, perhaps an allusion to the artist's homeland, Puerto Rico, suggest soft protective padding or an energy force around the boldly defined face; a comforting buffer or healing mediator between the inner torment and the outside world. Roche Rabell depicts his head seemingly detached from his body. Is the artist presenting us with a sacrificial offering? Is he commenting on being an artist, on his personal history and its emotional scars, on what it means to be Puerto Rican, on the island's political status? The artist's ambiguous and open-ended imagery is engaging and causes viewers to pose questions.
The artist's canvases are sites of ongoing tactile exchange. He builds up dense, thick applications of oil paint using vigorous gestures with a palette knife and brushes and then carves and scrapes back into the material to eliminate some of the pigment. Roche Rabell is known for incorporating monotype printmaking techniques in his paintings. Here he painted natural leaves, applied them to the surface of the canvas, went over them with a roller to affix their colors, and then peeled the leaves away from the work.
In various interviews Roche Rabell has mentioned expressionism, surrealism, post-Colonialism, Chicago's commitment to figurative painting, and the work of Vincent van Gogh in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, as influencing his artistic practice. His unique language of cultural pluralism, based on Puerto Rico's Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, European, and North American heritage, and his painting techniques that incorporate printmaking, sculpting, and drawing, contributed to the reinvigoration of painting in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Roche Rabell's oeuvre is closely related to Neo-Expressionism and the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Julio Galán, and Leon Golub, to name just a few artists associated with the revival of figurative painting and a return to the personal in the 1980s. In Autorretrato, with its bold colors, textural brushwork, and dense surface activity, we feel the artist's drive to make a work that immediately evokes the most primitive feelings in all their tragic intensity.
Cheryl Hartup, independent curator