Kenny Rivero: Exploring Loyalties and Commitments, through a Commitment to Paint

“My interests are scattered but they come from the same sensibility”

New York-born Kenny Rivero racked up a degree at his native city’s School of Visual Arts before heading to Yale to earn an MFA, and then to a residency at the revered Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine. He’s shown his work at top-flight venues internationally, from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) to New York’s El Museo del Barrio, the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis, Istanbul’s C.A.M. Gallery, and the Anahita Gallery, in Tehran.

Absolut Art had the great privilege of showing Rivero’s print “New Hat” at our booth at the 2019 NADA Miami art fair, which is organized by the New Art Dealers Alliance. The original painting was chosen as the third annual NADA gift to the Pérez Art Museum Miami. We talked to the artist about his inspirations in both comic books and art history, the question of loyalty in the world of sports, and the way that comedy and sadness meet in his work.

You put together a great sense of humor, especially in the seemingly untutored style of painting and titles (like I Eat Vegetables, Somtimes), but often at a very ambitious scale, so it combines a kind of lightness with a huge physical presence. Are those the terms in which you think about the work?

Yes, sometimes the work is large, but I do want it all to seem intimate, even if the painting is eight by eight feet. I don’t want it to feel like a monument. In terms of the style, I want them to feel touched. I want the paint to be present, I want the surface to communicate that I had an experience with it. The titles serve as material. It’s not something I’m using to describe the work, but rather another access point. They tend to be humorous, almost poetic, but often as a way of disguising the darkness or heaviness of the content, how sad it can feel, so it’s a counterbalance. As far as I Eat Vegetables, Somtimes, for example, I had a very malnourished childhood, growing up in food deserts without access to vegetables.

Looking at your work, I see references to comic books and superheroes like Superman and Batman, to art history, like the nod to Manet in Lonche in the Grass, to literature, like James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, and to music, with Sun Ra. It makes me think of a person who has ten browser windows open all at the same time. Would that describe you?

Defiinitely. My interests are scattered but they come from the same sensibility, of trying to understand myself as a person who lives on this planet. I’m thinking about my relationship to art as something spiritual, something that connects me to the Earth. I think about painting sculpturally, about the materiality of it. It’s very organic in a lot of ways. I also have a musical background, playing Afro-Caribbean percussion and jazz drums, and I studied music theory. But I had to make a choice of what to pursue professionally, so those things enter the practice in a different way.

I notice that your recent paintings often include a certain element: a little burst of flame coming out of the sidewalk or out of a brick wall, or appearing on top of someone’s head or on top of a Yankees hat. Is there some art historical precedent for that, or did that arise out of your own inspiration?

It isn’t a direct art historical reference, but growing up in a mixed-faith household, I saw a lot of strange Catholic imagery, and I feel like I’ve seen a flame on a forehead that describes illumination or energy. I think of it as a cosmic life force, one that describes transformation, material evolving from one form to another. I also use it as a way to describe portals. A lot of times the fires, especially in reference to architecture, are a point of contact with another dimension, where ancestors, spirits, and ghosts exist. There are also often floating figures in the paintings that reference another world that is with us but isn’t necessarily visible. It’s a bridge.

So, from the sublime to the Yankees, tell me a little about New Hat.

The painting is so new that I’m still thinking about it. New Hat is thinking about loyalty. What does my commitment to New York, or the Yankees, or to baseball, mean? What am I aligning with? A white capitalist structure that doesn’t serve me? What team am I actually on? Who should I be loyal to?