There is art on the walls, more art leaning at angles beneath those pieces, and even art placed carefully on the ground. An expressionistic bronze bust sits atop a pedestal; a large landscape resting against the column’s base. There is a weird order to this collection of paintings, drawings and prints, sculpture, and works of every imaginable medium. The artists who made these might be young, but the quality can be impressive.
For the next few hours, artist Tony Rodrigues is the sole juror of the show. More than 100 pieces were submitted for the University of North Florida’s Art + Design Juried Student Annual Exhibition; by day’s end, Rodrigues will have narrowed that number down to around 50 works that’ll be featured in the show.
Sporting a red polo shirt, his arms sleeved in tattoos, hair cropped short, Rodrigues could be either an arts educator or a punk rock musician. Over the course of his decades-long creative life, he’s been both. In the local art community, Rodrigues is known for creating paintings, with swaths of color and clip-art-like signifiers floating in a kind of tonal mist that are wholly incongruent to the rest of the scene.
A BFA graduate of Atlanta College of Art, Rodrigues is probably the only judge in UNF’s history who can speak expansively about the subtleties of both Ed Ruscha and the Jesus Lizard. Since 2014, and under the auspices of the Cathedral Arts Project, Rodrigues has helmed a highly praised program, teaching visual arts at John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility and PACE Center for Girls. So he brings a lot to the table as far as a singular artist and educator, equipped with a vast array of important experience.
“It’s the juror’s choice and it’s designed to set a standard. It’s about looking at the work that’s produced and pulling together a cohesive show. It’s not about whether something is better or worse; but obviously some things are,” explains artist-educator Jim Draper, UNF’s Curator of Galleries. “The show is not about the individual quality of the work or the craftsmanship as much as it is the content and the cohesiveness.”
Draper hand-selected Rodrigues as this year’s juror because of the artist’s skills in tying all of those strands together in creating an estimable exhibit.
“I appreciate Tony’s aesthetic and knew he would put a lot of thought into this,” explains Draper. “I also thought Tony would bring a different aesthetic. Even though he teaches, he’s not fully immersed in academia so he’s not looking at things as ‘art assignments.'” Draper also cites the fact that Rodrigues is highly aware of the international contemporary arts scene and is “probably more in line” with that scene than most.
Considering the number of works now placed in every possible space in the gallery, Rodrigues works fairly quickly. He’ll look at a print and then quickly head to the far side of the room, to again scrutinize a particular painting. “I’m not looking at this as a ‘student’ show, but rather at which objects look the best and also what art I would collect.”
The students’ works run the gamut, from a solemn representational painting of a house to a black-and-white print that’s akin to the punk rock and lowbrow art scenes.
“The work is really varied,” says Rodrigues, of the thematic and media used in the collected pieces. One he views as “post-post-modernism”-a second nearby piece strikes him more as “psychedelic album cover” art. When judging these respective pieces, he seems to regard them using the same unilateral criteria. A third piece loses points for “presentation” but he keeps returning to that particular work for another perusal.
“For me, I emphasize that context and title are important. If I’m enjoying something, say, with a sense of irony, is that intentional?” As he walks along the space between the front row of blue plastic chairs set up in the gallery space, and the work gathered in the space, his focus is apparent.
“If one of these pieces is dealing with really ‘heavy’ subject matter, then I really lean toward subtlety.”
Scanning the dozens of works, he speaks of the “psychology” of one piece, the aesthetically pleasing “depth of practice” of a second, and praises a third for not being “overly specific.”
Will these three make it into the show?
He leans down and examines two pieces. “In a curatorial sense, these two seem to be ‘talking to each other,’ if that makes sense. So it’s two different artists, but in the show, it’s about making those kinds of relationships.”
The only real formal limitation Rodrigues is up against is the actual gallery space. So a larger piece, if deemed worthy, might take the potential territory of 10 smaller pieces. And in turn, he acknowledges there have been some “hard cuts” in vetting the art for this show. “Keep in mind that, in choosing the pieces, you really want to think about the overall show in the sense that you want people to come back and see it again.”
Rodrigues admits that, to some, he might have “peculiar” or “unusual” tastes in art. But there are certain universal principles of visual art, however used by any particular artists, which attract him. “The use of materials,” he says. “And always content, content, content. But that being said, sometimes I appreciate a good painting for just being a good painting.”
Rodrigues and Draper have been in the gallery for hours. They’re ready to knock off and grab some lunch and, while his selections for the exhibit are essentially locked into place, Rodrigues is considering coming back and doing one more pass at the collected submissions.
While he’s juggling objectivity with his own subjective views, education and, perhaps most important, experience with visual art, Rodrigues also stresses he’s really here to astutely encourage these student artists, rather than sweepingly eviscerate their current work.
As a former art student, Rodrigues had been on the other end of this experience, with his submitted work being judged for campus exhibits. “I’d either make the cut or get cut,” he says, while acknowledging he won the Juror’s Award for photography. So he fully understands the sensitive nature of what he’s doing and, in some ways true to form, is dismissive of the academic “grading” of the art. The first place prize for the exhibit is $100, but Rodrigues is dealing in a different currency.
“This isn’t about ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It’s really about making the best possible art show.”