A Conversation with Kenny Rivero
New York City-based painter Kenny Rivero presents The Floor Is Crooked, a solo exhibition of paintings that focuses on works made over the last 10 years. This exhibition is intended to be an investigation of Rivero’s artistic practice and a focused look at themes that have been present in his work for the last decade.
Through his practice, Rivero aims to deconstruct histories and identities he’s been conditioned to accept as absolute. As the artist states, “through the lens of my evolving relationship to fear, love, death, intimacy, violence, power, and aloneness, my work addresses themes of Dominican and American identity, Afro-Caribbean symbologies, socio-geographic solidarity, cultural and familial expectations, race, and masculinity.”
Below, enjoy a conversation between Rivero and Lauren Haynes, former director of artist initiatives and curator, contemporary art at the Momentary and Crystal Bridges.
LAUREN HAYNES: How has your artistic practice evolved over the last 10 years?
KENNY RIVERO: I think what makes this work different than work from before 10 years ago was that I wasn’t rigorous about research, and I counted on my naive relationship to certain histories that I was just kind of making up. I think that worked for a long time, and it helped me become more playful and be more flexible in general. As my work developed, and as I was starting meeting more artists, I started to learn that there were certain ways I could be accountable to myself. I think that the work has become harder and harder to make the longer I continue with a practice because I’m continuing to challenge myself, to learn to leave room for play while still being rigorous about information. And I’m being more intentional about the stories I want to tell. Before, I was building a world very generally; I was very generally pointing to certain archetypes, in terms of people in my social and familial circles, but I wasn’t saying or seeing anything specific. And now, I’m having so much fun being so specific to the point where I’m just geeking out. Another way things have changed is that I now have a writing practice alongside my painting practice. My writing practice helps me keep track of what I’m doing. While it’s really great to sell work and to have shows frequently, I have to account for the fact that I don’t get to spend much time with the work once it’s finished. And that’s really kind of unfortunate. It can be easy for me to lose track of where I was with work I just finished and then I have nothing to bounce off of, to help develop the next works. So I’ve had to develop a writing practice, around the need to just kind of like, remember things. A way to keep track of decisions so I don’t lose them.
LH: How do the titles for your artworks develop? Do you want viewers to take anything particular away from your titles?
KR: I don’t necessarily want the viewer to use the title as a guide for the painting, or use it as a way to describe what they should experience or what they should see or anything like that. For me, the title is another chance to include a different kind of materiality to the work. And to actually have something that can recharge what you can find, or what you can discover in a painting. So when I’m naming an artwork, I think a lot about songs—rap songs and songs where you have titles that connect to the song in such a small way, but it really means a lot. So it could be a lyric in the last verse for two seconds, but it becomes a title. And I think that’s more exciting, because then you really have to kind of figure out the decisions that may have led to that as a listener. I really like to have fun with it. I see the title as another opportunity to play. I make so many lists of titles that are for paintings I haven’t made yet, you know? After I finish a body of work, I tend to write a lot of silly, silly rap verses that really aren’t about being good—they’re a chance for me flex words a little bit. So a lot of the titles come from that process.
LH: Let’s talk specifically about the title of this exhibition. Where did The Floor Is Crooked come from? Is it from song lyrics?
KR: The Floor Is Crooked came from me thinking about this whole year, and thinking about the pandemic, and just how I’ve had to resituate and sort of reestablish my ground. I’ve really had to think about the integrity of the things that I built for myself as foundations, you know, which haven’t felt secure, necessarily. So it’s understanding that the floor is always crooked; there’s no level plane on the planet, if you think about it. So why approach it that way? In treating the floor as crooked all the time, there is a chance to have a different vantage point, or new and more realistic ways of navigating things like spirituality, romance, and intimacy.
LH: That really resonates with me. I think a lot about this last year and just how completely overwhelming, to say the very least, it has been. And I think specifically about how artists of all types have been affected. Has this last year impacted how you think about making art?
KR: Definitely. I’m reminded of the potentials of what I want to do, more often. I feel a lot more hopeful because of how I’ve had to change my discipline around the studio. Confronting my mental health was another big thing, a big shift and also affected how I thought about my physical health. And being rigorous throughout the year has created a kind of, for me, clarity in the studio, where I’m reminded of what energy feels like when it is positive three days in a row or something, you know, and I’m saying, whoa, this is so different. And then it makes me a little bit more aware of what I need to do or the things that I can do to expand my practice outside of just painting, you know? I’m giving myself time to practice drums for like two hours and trying to be wise about my time in a way that makes me operate in a high gear. It has also been lonely in a lot of ways. And dealing with the loneliness, a certain kind of “studio” aloneness, has been difficult, but it’s also reconditioned me to approach my studio as a living space—a space that I can activate when I’m in certain moods or have certain energies.
LH: One of the things that I’ve constantly been struck by in your works is that there are so many references, so many colors, just so many things that come out. And I also get a very distinct New York City feel to the works that you create. How do all of the references and ideas come together for you when you are creating your works?
KR: I think it has to do with the way that I absorb things the way that I seek things out, like I literally will … binge Law & Order and then I’ll watch Hey Arnold!, and then I’ll listen to like Desus & Mero then I’ll realize, I’m listening to very New York-type things all the time. And even though they say Hey Arnold! is supposed to be in Portland, I’m gonna say it’s New York. So to not get too comfortable, I’ll make a hard left turn and look up something on Egyptology to play in the background as I work. I’m constantly absorbing information that feels encyclopedic, and I get really excited about sharing it. I look up a lot of stats. I’m a stats person. So I’ll look up baseball stats, basketball stats, and then murder rates. And when I first moved to the Bronx, I became really aware of the opioid epidemic in the South Bronx, and I got trained to administer overdose medication. And those facts were insane. So I feel like all these numbers and all this information gets channeled into the painting somehow, as I’m working as a way for me to document or index the moments of me learning this information. Sometimes that symbology gets lost to me after like a week, and I’m looking at something like, ‘why did I make this note,’ you know? So it becomes this formal element that just has to exist as a form and potentially evolve to take on new meaning. And I find that beautiful when something can change in front of me. I’m always observing things and attaching information to it in a way that gets me really excited. And so superheroes and faith and deities and a lot of these systems of spiritual energies is something that I find there’s a lot of overlap with. And for a long time, whether I’ve been doing it intentionally or not, I’ve been building a mythical world, a New York space, in the work, and I feel like I’m starting to kind of hone in on it now.
LH: Even though your work isn’t in a particular series, it very much feels like the works are in an ongoing conversation with each other. I think it just really speaks to how your visual art practice and your writing practice are connected and how it relates to the works that you’re making. How did all of that become key to your practice? When did you realize that those things were connected for you?
KR: I think art is the last thing I’ve done. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be in comedy, and I applied to a high school behind my parents’ back because it was focused on drama. And once I got there, I eventually started playing music. And so that lasted over two years and I didn’t decide to go to art school until 2003. So I feel like I already arrived at a visual practice with a synthesized way of thinking about being creative. And you know, I always go back to these other ways of working every now and then, but visual art has become the priority now, because it can synthesize things so much more efficiently, I think. Where like with music, if I don’t practice for a month, I wouldn’t even have the chops to play with other people. My painting, drawing, and object practice is a lot more forgiving. But I’ve always been interested in other forms of sharing content and telling stories. Storytelling is a big connector for a lot of it.
Kenny Rivero: The Floor Is Crooked is on view at the Momentary now through October 24, 2021. It is free to view.