Art and the Turn to Unreal Estate: A Night with Carlos Rigau
We met on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and I was feeling bad not because it was Yom Kippur but because I am Jewish, and the day was like any other. I walked up to the building with the Superman mural on it, its face protruding off the wall, and though you usually have to buzz to get in, the door was open. Gotham City Lounge is small, dingy, and the paraphernalia—freakish figures from this and that comic book universe—is dimly lit.
While waiting, I day dreamt about General Practice, the foreclosed house gallery that Carlos Rigau ran in Miami. It was a haunted house-shaped casualty of the Great Recession, an absolute outlier on the luxury grid of the growing Design District, bought by a gallerist who hosted a couple exhibitions, who then had to foreclose. Rigau then took the helm, and ran it alongside Ibett Yanez, Nick Klein and Carlos Ascurra as GP.
I lived there in mid-2014 after Rigau moved back to New York, as the two-story crypt approached eviction—I narrowly avoided the police’s removal of everything in the house by about 12 hours. Following that, the house was bought, then flipped, then bought again this past April for over half-a-million dollars. These transactions took place without anyone actually living in it (or at least, no one that was supposed to). The house is an almost-corpse of these speculative times, a harbinger of the 21st century turn to unreal estate, where property and land is more investment asset than physical entity for residential, commercial, or cultural use.
Rigau arrives at Gotham City Lounge and disrupts my train of thought and he tells how the place is run by one of the guys who is shooting pool and drinking with some of the patrons. Over the blare of indistinguishable bar pop, “It’s his bat cave,” Rigau tells me, “and the owner thinks he’s Batman. And he’s kind of a dick. Sometimes he’ll test you on your comic cred.” To this, I ask and assure him, “How’s yours? Mine’s terrible.”
“I got some,” he tells me.
Rigau, an artist and curator, got his BFA in television production at FIU and then his MFA in visual art from Hunter College. His paintings and sculptures are palimpsestically layered, heavy on the spray paint and abstract nihilist oblivion. Rigau’s work is a cheeky, dark take on hyper-capitalism, urban development and the idea of labor in today’s world. There’s almost a romanticism to it, if weren’t so heavy on the malevolent Marxist slang.
However, it’s not all dreary abyss; it sometimes manifests as post-ironic motivational speech acts, which are as funny as they are profound statements on the layered motivations for creating art. In a video called Pump It Up, Rigau dons a palette and jumps up and down, infectiously repeating refrains about getting into the studio and painting. “Make the canvas work. Make it come to life. Paint. Paint. I need you to paint. I need you to pump it up. I need you to think about painting. I need you to think about why it is that your painting. Don’t think at all actually, just paint! Make it work. Paint. Paint. Paint!”
A recent piece, which he showed at Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, is a large-scale image that to most looks like the back of a folding table with the legs spray or MS-painted on. As Rigau says, “Some collectors don’t recognize that it’s the back of a table, because they’ve never seen the back of a table. They see it as referential abstraction. They talk about the form and the pattern and the scale. Artists see it as one thing; most people see it as a table. My mom said, ‘Why’d you put a table in a frame Carlos?’”
Rigau is first generation Cuban-American, “An anchor baby, that’s what Trump would call me.” His grandfather joined the Cuban navy in order to become a dentist while Batista was in power, and then had to flee after Castro’s ascension. He then went to Wichita, Kansas, since that was the only dentistry program in the United States that would take him. Rigau’s abuelo then ended up in Miami, operating an illegal dentistry practice out of his home on Flagler. The lineage of re-purposing space runs deep.
After General Practice in Miami was emptied of all its contents, Rigau did a couple GP exhibitions out of his Bushwick apartment building’s basement. In the bleak spirit of meditating on rotting infrastructure and self-hate—yet retaining a sort of dismal optimism—the shows consciously engaged themes of poverty, suicide, and the ersatz balms that capitalism offers as relief.
Now, GP has been turned into a public access television show on BRIC. Rigau, utilizing his background in film and AV, has been conducting strange, green-screen-infused interviews with collective cultural entities including Jack Roy, Helper, Primitive Languages and the end/SPRING BREAK. The episodes will air sometime in the future, late at night.