In the flesh
Sacramento, CA 95814
Despite the mutilated faces of artist Rogelio Manzo’s portraits, there is a controlled calmness in his paintings. His subjects are often impeccably dressed, and he paints many of them on layers of industrial, textured resin panels, playing with their translucency and creating another dimension of depth. Born and raised in Mexico, Manzo studied architecture at university, but dropped out, relocated to Sacramento and has been painting full time since being laid off more than a year ago. This month, he exhibits Looted at Pamela Skinner/Gwenna Howard Contemporary Art.
Tell me about the medium and the layers of resin you use.
Some of the panels I buy like this, and then I work off the panels. They’re sandwiching, if I can use that as a verb, that little cloth in between. I like them because of the melancholic feeling. … Sometimes I scan images and print them and [transfer] them on the front panel. … I don’t follow any strategically based technique.
Yeah, whatever works, but obviously I keep with theme of the flesh.
I guess the theme of [my work] is mortality and that kind of thing, not to be afraid of it, but mostly to celebrate life, I guess, or to appreciate life.
Does that have anything to do with your heritage, being from Mexico, and how death is perceived there?
Yeah, I guess it does. … I’m very intrigued by our flesh, our bones. In this particular series, what I’m trying to do is making fun of models in magazines. They look so perfect. … Then I realized the images become perfect because we allow it to.
[These characters are] organic, fleshy beings and movement, which, that’s what we are. …. To me, they’re shaking their heads. They’re not in pain or anything. They’re just existing beings experiencing life.
Joel-Peter Witkin’s photography was famously influenced by witnessing a girl’s decapitated head. Did you have an experience with death in your early years?
When I was a kid, the town I used to live in—it was a small town—when someone died, everyone knew. So I would always be fascinated by the whole drama of death. … They would take the coffin to the cemetery, and I would go. Nobody invited me. When they would open the coffin, about to put [it] in the ground, I would get in between people, stick my head in and look at it. I would be so frightened, I’d run. But I kept doing it. It was like an obsession. Every time someone died, I wanted to see it so bad, and I didn’t know why. And then at night, I would have nightmares.
So how old were you the first time you saw a corpse?
Maybe I was 8, 10. Then it happened to us, and I didn’t like it then. I mean, one of my relatives passed away. And then there was something else. Like, four years ago, I was painting realistic stuff, but something happened to me that totally changed my concept about life and what I wanted to paint. My grandma was about to die; she was on her bed and I came [to] her. She said, “I’m fine, but everything is gone. My farm is gone,” because she used to have a farm in Mexico. “My horses, my cows, everything is gone. Your grandpa is gone,” she said. And then she looks at me and grabs her arm, and her skin is loose, wrinkled, and she pulls it and says, “Look, I’m gone, too.” That moment right there gave me goose bumps. Then I came back to my studio one day, and the idea of painting skin and flesh turned into this [new direction].
So you went to funerals uninvited to scare yourself. What do you do to scare yourself now?
(Laughs.) I don’t know why I’m going to show you this. My friend said, “Don’t show her, don’t talk about your dirty magazines”—not the dirty ones that you might think of. This magazine is the cheapest magazine you could ever imagine in the world, but every time I go to Mexico or my dad comes [here], I go, “Could you get me a couple of those?” I’m not going to show some images. This is the easiest one [to look at], you know, of dead people. (Shows a photo spread of crime scenes.)
It’s a crime-scene magazine?
There are some images that will make you puke if I show them to you. And what I like about this magazine is that (laughs)—
What’s it called? Alar—
Oh my God, no, don’t even say it. People that know the magazine might be able to identify it. But what I like about that magazine, the images they cover, but my main—amusement? What’s the word, surprise?—that a government of any country would let someone print that. … To me, it’s sort of like a daring thing. It’s like, let’s see if you can put up with this, let’s see if you can look at these images and not puke or scare yourself. It does scare me. The way bodies are about to blow. They’re swollen; they have this greenish, purplish color. Beautiful, but to see the real thing … ’cause I have a very imaginative mind, and when I see something, I can smell what it smells like.
Any other embarrassing secrets you’d like to share?
(Laughs loudly.) No, that’s it.