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Checking In: Carlos Rolón Embraces Memory, Migration, and Living in the Moment

Right now in Chicago, the artist Carlos Rolón is working from home. Like us, his galleries—Salon 94 in New York and Kotaro Nukaga, Tokyo—have checked in on him to ensure he’s okay, too, and he wanted to make that known. (That’s the kind of transparency we know and love about Rolón.) He’s assured us all he’s doing quite fine, working on new projects, and staying inspired by audio books, TV shows, and his heritage.

Occasionally, he’s able to return to his studio, and continue creating pieces for a solo exhibition in Tokyo this fall. He’s also working on a new series—inspired by his Puerto Rican roots and a photographer that documented the island in the 1920s—that aims to generate a sense of rebirth and hope.

Carlos Rolón.

An original photo taken after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which Carlos Rolón will base his painting on; courtesy of Kotaro Nukaga.

Whitewall caught up with Rolón to hear more about how he’s keeping busy amid the pandemic, what his latest series entails, and why he feels staying present today may lead to more collaborative support tomorrow.

WHITEWALL: How are you doing?

CARLOS ROLÓN: Considering the circumstances, I’m doing well. My two teenagers, who live with their mother, are safe and healthy. My son has been making music and beats all day and my daughter is changing her eyebrows and hair every other week and doing schoolwork from home. I’ve had to parent at times via video—FaceTime and now Zoom. So, this has been helpful.

WW: What are you listening to, reading, or watching?

CR: The quarantine has made for innovative and interesting podcasts, projects, etc.

One of my recent favorites has been the “beat battles” started by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. My longtime friend and actor Freddy Rodriguez turned me on to them. In the interest of social distancing, the battle is streamed from the comfort of their respective studios with at least 200,000 people tuning in. Without a doubt, the best one is with DJ Premier (Gang Starr) versus RZA (Wu-Tang Clan).

I’ve also been listening to artist friends who have been organizing playlists and mixtapes. One of my favorites is by the artist Eamon Ore-Giron aka DJ Lengua. It’s nice to hear what kind of vibe gets people inspired, motivated, or puts them in a certain mindset. Especially if you’re a fan of their studio practice.

As far as reading, I usually have audio books on rotation. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle; The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz; and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. I normally practice Bikram Yoga, so I’ve been adapting to a new yoga practice while at home.

In addition, I’ve had a few discussions with friends about meditation. So, I decided to take this opportunity to investigate and download resources. One app I have been using is Calm, which I really like. As for TV watching, I’ve succumbed to the incredibly bizarre docu-series distraction Tiger King. All I have to say is…WOW. I have the Ozarks, Better Call Saul, and Homeland in the queue. I’m also a news junkie, but I’ve learned to limit my intake. Not out of denial, but solely on the fact it’s difficult to listen to the incompetence of this administration.

WW:What are you cooking?

CR: I’m not a good cook. At all. One exception is my “world famous spaghetti,” according to my kids via me brainwashing them.

WW: How are you staying connected?

CR: Facetime, Zoom, and checking in via text and email. I’ve never been one to answer my phone and have long talks. I’m not one to go out often. When I do, it’s very pre-empted. This has been a difficult time for obvious reasons, but I don’t feel that I’m going as stir crazy as some people. One person who is very important in my life has kept me sane and grounded and I’m very grateful for her daily.

WW: How are you staying creative? Are you able to make work at this time?

CR: Obviously, with working from home, I’m having more time to research, read, and allow myself to have some freedom working on scale and with basic materials—such as paper and graphite. My studio practice is often rooted in personal memory, history, migration and domestic environments. I try to bring aspects of these stories inside and outside of the institution.

With the impact of the pandemic, the work has now taken on a sense of immediacy since the economy has come to a halt. Before the quarantine, my studio began making new work for an upcoming solo exhibition opening at Kotaro Nukaga, Tokyo this fall which will include sculptures and wall reliefs utilizing material that is very physical and tactile. Large scale oil paintings showing how beauty has been born out of destruction or circumstance. During the quarantine, I’ve been able to visit the studio from time to time and work in solitude.

WW: Where are you finding hope/inspiration?

CR: Having to work from sense of seclusion or isolation has always been part of the early basics for any artist. On a creative level, it feels good to observe the work from a new vantage point, which obviously has now taken on a subjective meaning.

The premise of this new work has been inspired by National Geographic photographer Charles Martin who visited Puerto Rico in 1924, just seven years after Puerto Ricans were officially granted U.S. citizenship. Martin’s images show the island in the early stages of its history as an American commonwealth, showcasing a thriving culture, gorgeous tropical landscape, and a growing economy. The images are almost 100 years before the devastation of recent natural disasters.

The images show better days of physical spaces, labor, objects, gestures, landscape, and community that harkens back before smartphones and social media. In relation to the current events, this new work now generates a sense of rebirth and hope. The intention of the new work has indirectly taken on a new meaning. It is very human and has become universal. I decided to create this new body of work before the pandemic and quarantine based on a moment in time that shows how beauty existed before a disaster, but also serve as a reminder that better days are still ahead.

Lastly, natural disasters are devastating, non-calculated social experiences. They all have a familiar cycle—loss of jobs and a weakened economy and creates an atmosphere based on fear. My goal is to convey a message for the community to embrace their past while still being present in the moment. Despite everything that’s happening, community will always unfailingly be here.

Creatives always find solutions for engagement because that’s how we survive. We always work based on faith and hope. Maybe it’s time to slow down and take this time for self-reflection. We cannot go to galleries and museums. Collectors cannot attend major art fairs, and the auction houses have come to a halt. It would be refreshing to see a redirection into more public spaces. Have more self-compassion and empathy for others. More communal and collaborative support—not only within the creative community, but society as a whole.



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Kelly Wearstler




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