Years 40 • Resides & Creates Cleveland Heights • Learned BA from Cleveland State University

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

Danté Rodriguez isn’t new to the scene. He emerged as an artist several years ago, receiving an honorable mention at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s prestigious “The NEO Show” in 2005 and even co-founding his own gallery, Wall Eye Gallery, which showcased artists from 2009 to 2011 in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Now, the draftsman is re-emerging with experimental and potentially transformative techniques. His art has long grappled with identity – still does. But his focus has shifted from solely exploring personal, relational themes to examining his process and approach to drawing. He’s challenging the identity of his art. 

“Throughout art history, people have always questioned the idea of painting. ‘What is painting?’” says Rodriguez, noting the degree of experimentation the medium allows. “I want to do the same thing for drawing. I want people to question the reality of what I’m presenting, if it’s a drawing, if it’s a sculpture. The new work is related to that. Just, think differently. Shift your thinking a little bit. It still can be considered a work of art, for sure. A drawing? Maybe, maybe not.”

His boundary pushing can be seen in his “fur drawings,” recent works in which he cuts intricate designs into canvases of faux fur. The concept was inspired by his mother, a beautician. 

“I was thinking, ‘What else can I use to draw?’ And I was thinking about barbers – they cut into people’s hair, but it’s temporary. So, can we make it permanent?” he says. “I was just drawing with clippers instead of charcoal.”

“Self-Portrait,” 2017, charcoal and linseed oil on Yupo paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rodriguez’s latest body of work involves yet another unique medium: charcoal mixed with linseed oil. He’s applying his “charcoal paint,” as he calls it, to found wood panels, metal objects, paper and fiber to conceal the identity of its form in a uniform black coating.

The masking darkness of that medium is intentional. In stark contrast to an earlier series consisting of brightly colored portraits of various Latino identities or his vibrant 2018 mural “La Ofrenda De Xochipilli” in the Gordon Square Arts District, both of which outwardly celebrate Latino culture, these new works – his Black Sun Series – convey sorrow, gloom and introspection stemming from personal hardships. The  relatable emotions emanate from his canvas and swirl in viewers’ minds and hearts.

“I’ve been going through a dark period of my life for the past year-and-a-half that has culminated in ending of my marriage,” he says, adding he’s also still coming to terms with learning at 21 he was adopted. “I’m also learning about how many of us adoptees experience trauma when we are separated from our birth mothers at birth.

“So, this new work is delving into my subconscious to face a reality that I’ve been fearful of facing. Between the trauma of discovering late in life my adoptive status to my current divorce, this new series of work has taken on a therapeutic nature of healing for me,” he says. “The feeling of covering objects or boards in black is symbolic of my memories and feelings buried deep in my subconscious.”

In that way, art is a safe space for Rodriguez. In the wake of learning of his adoption, as he wrestled with questions of identity and belonging (he was raised by a Puerto Rican family in Lorain but learned he was born in Mexico), art afforded him an opportunity to express himself and share his journey. 

“Being 12,” 2017, charcoal and linseed oil on Yupo paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

When he isn’t making art, Rodriguez is helping display it at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he’s a mount maker within the exhibition and design department. In that role, he makes armature, custom brackets or whatever other support structures might be needed to make safe the relics the museum receives and displays.

Rodriguez credits having so many different materials in his hands at CMA with challenging him to try different things in his own practice – one of many inspirations that lead him to continually reinvent himself and his artwork

“One of the biggest critiques I got from one of the professors I loved was, ‘Danté, you have to pick a style and focus,’” he says. “You know, I’m not interested in creating a brand of my art, I’m just interested in exploring what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking – because how I thought 10 years ago is totally different from now. We’re constantly growing and always gaining new knowledge or insight, and I want my work to express that. … I don’t want to be stuck.” C

On View

  • “Fabulism” will be on view from May 9 to June 28 at YARDS Projects in Worthington Yards, 725 Johnson Court, Cleveland.
  • “Unidos per el Arte” will be on view from May 17 to June 21 in Gallery 215 at 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland.
  • “America’s Well-Armed Militias” will be on view from Aug. 16 to Sept. 27 at SPACES, 2900 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

Adam Tully & John Farina

“Through his search for better understanding his identity, his journey has brought him into multiple art mediums. If you viewed his work during the CAN Triennial, you would see brightly colored faux fur works that were intricately shaved and layered. Also around that time, he dedicated time completing a mural next to Astoria Market in Detroit-Shoreway that depicts of Xochipilli, the Aztec god of beauty, poetry and dance. His homage is beautifully rendered in his striking color palette and the piece seems to undulate on the wall. We have been collectors of his work for years. We’ve seen his ideas change, but each time we see something new, we see something more refined and interesting.”

Adam Tully & John Farina, owners, Maria Neil Art Project