In the early months of the pandemic, the bleak weight of COVID existence would occasionally hit Daniel Rona like a jolt. “There were definitely times when it was like, ‘Oh, this is the apocalypse,’” the artist said in early May, standing inside , where his new show, “Out of Abstraction,” opens today (Wednesday, May 10). “And there was a moment where something just clicked in me, and I wanted to start creating for myself again, like it was when I first started painting.”
Even the materials Rona adopted at the time transported him back to his earliest forays with drawing, the artist utilizing oil pastels due to the ease with which he could wield them, holding them like the fat crayons he used to color with as a child. “It’s not like a brush, where sometimes you have to hold it daintily,” he said. “With pastels, I can pick them up quickly and make my mark.”
The artist has always incorporated figures into his work, stretching the human frame to its absolute limits But with “Out of Abstraction,” he has completely upended this approach, creating a series of colorful, deeply warped pieces in which echoes of the human form (a fraction of a floating eyeball; tube-like structures with bends that suggest noses in profile; a form that recalls a disembodied, laughing jaw) can only occasionally be gleaned on the canvas.
Rona pulled further inspiration from the mural work that has become a part of his practice (one recent creation graces the south wall of the downtown art gallery Blockfort), and in particular the textures that confronted him as he painted, from crumbling brick walls and scratchy stucco patches to abrasive tracts of concrete.
“Painting on crappy walls is actually fun, and you can sometimes create little painterly illusions with the texture,” said Rona, who incorporated sand, spackle and plaster into his canvases on display at Sarah Gormely, embracing the imperfections introduced by these materials. “It’s being able to use those advantages that [the textures] bring, while trying to tamp down any negatives that might arise.”
A year ago, when Rona started work on this collection, he had a conversation with a friend about artificial intelligence, which got the artist thinking about how the A.I. process is modeled, and how our imaginations function in a similar way. “But instead of scraping Google or whatever for the answers, we’re scraping our brains for information,” he said. “If I want to create a portrait, or paint two figures standing together, or a still life, my brain sifts through all of these possibilities, like, ‘Okay, I’ve learned from Picasso. I’ve learned from Basquiat. Now how can I create a new piece with everything I know?’”
More specifically, Rona started to think about the red-and-white figure that has become a recurring element in his work, and what it could look like if he asked A.I. to create different paintings involving the character – sort of reimagining the form as it might appear in wildly divergent multiverses, rendered in colors and shapes that would leave it almost completely unidentifiable. “So, this is just my character going through different filters or universes of my imagination,” he said. “And I suppose every painting is a different type of world it landed in, where it’s being pulled apart and construed in different ways.”
With “Body Forms,” Rona’s warped, twisted bodies reflected his early pandemic state of mind, when his surroundings often felt confused and ugly. The works populating “Out of Abstraction,” in contrast, emerged in part from efforts the artist made to obscure his own story as he translated it to the canvas, the deeply coded images reflecting the sense of mystery into which he leaned. “I think the more I didn’t want to have meaning, the more I blocked it in with colorful, abstract [shapes],” he said. “This time I wanted to tell a more vague story.”