Gabriel Rico

by Miller Schulman

“An ontologist with a heuristic methodology.” This is the self- anointed descriptor offered by Guadalajara-based artist Gabriel Rico. Quite a mouthful for any newcomer to his work. So what does heuristic, ontological art look like? Hung on gallery walls, geometric neon lines are placed in tandem with tree branches, often complemented by a selection of taxidermy and kitschy ready-mades scattered throughout the space. Menageries of found and created objects are intentionally arranged on stark-white walls; contemporary wunderkammeren that explore and upend the human condition through its fundamental duality: sloppy and emotional vs. orderly and rational. Though decidedly ambiguous in its intentions, Rico’s work feels deeply personal, transmitting his passions and obsessions through the primal nature of assemblage. His installations are friendly and humorous, but never lean on the crutch of irony. With recent solo shows at galleries throughout the world—including
a standout solo show at Perrotin in New York last year—Rico is on the rise as an intriguing and provocative multimedia artist. 

Born in the baroque Mexican
city of Lagos de Moreno in 1980, Rico
first chose to study architecture at
the Instituto de Estudios Superiores
del Occidente. “I wasn’t happy
 doing architecture, so 15 or 16
years ago I started to do art,” Rico
 explains to me. Notably, the art Rico
started producing did not address
his Mexican identity in a direct
way. “I don’t really talk about the
normal issues related with Mexico,”
he says. “For example: violence,
narcotrafficking, migration. I don’t address these topics in my work because my reflections as an artist are more related to the general condition of what it means to be a human.” He’s subverting a quiet double standard in the art world—as underrepresented groups seek inclusion in the broader global artistic conversation, it seems they are often expected to make work that hinges on their particular identity, neatly packaging their “outsider” status for audiences and critics rather than being encouraged to explore the more universal subjects. But Rico’s work shows that this is a false dichotomy, and that the personal can also be universal. In addition to himself, he seeks to explore the shared, borderless aspects of the human condition. It is his success in this arena that has caught the attention of galleries and museums throughout the world. Rico was soon invited to participate in residencies and exhibitions throughout Europe, South America, and Asia. 

One of Rico’s most interesting residencies took place at the Gyeonggi Creation Center in Ansan-do, South Korea between 2015 and 2016. After three months working and researching in Ansando, Rico revealed his exhibition, Vis Viva. Filling the gallery
with a grid-like arrangement of petite ceramic pots, each containing a bare branch topped with a gold-foil flag, the space looked a bit like a post-apocalyptic tree nursery. “I used branches from a forest in Mexico for this installation,” Rico explains. In the past, Rico has spoken about how, as a child, he collected found objects (stones, branches, etc.) from the hills around his home to better understand his environment. Each ceramic vessel, Rico explains, was created
in collaboration with local artisans from the Gyeonggi Province. “I asked the artisans to project their personalities into the 50 pots,” he says. The resulting project—a combination of Rico’s penchant for collectionism and the particular styles of local artisans—was at once both Mexican and Korean, beautiful and ominous, deeply personal and anonymous, calling into question notions of terroir. 

Rico’s next significant solo show took place at the Arizona State University Art Museum in 2017. Working with the university’s natural science department, Rico explored the intersections between design and scientific categorization for his exhibition, Dead, Dead, Live, Dead. “The chief curator of the ASU Art Museum, Julio Morales, and the staff of the natural science department had a very pragmatic way of thinking,” explains Rico. Departments that usually had very little interaction at the university were demonstrably excited to collaborate on a project. The resulting exhibition utilized taxidermied animals, neon, granite pedestals, and organic found objects. Rico’s exhibition at ASU was complemented nicely by his 2017 solo show at Perrotin New York, One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression. Inspired by a William Blake excerpt from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Rico sought to explore the human relationship with the animal kingdom, and the flawed history of humans attempting to quantify, dominate, and conquer nature. With the knowledge that Trump had referred to Mexicans as “animals” or as less-than-human in speeches and tweets, the show took on a political dimension. Both the exhibitions at ASU and Perrotin resembled kitschy menageries, a wonderland of found and manufactured objects. Emblematic of Rico’s work ethos, both expositions re-interpreted and ridiculed archaic methods of scientific categorization. In lieu of written language, Rico communicated his intentions through geometric forms. 

“We can project and lose ourselves in the geometric shapes... They are very universal,” Rico muses, as would someone who studied, then abandoned architecture. 

Despite his universalist, global tendencies, Rico has been recently drawn to exhibit largely in the United States. “Last year, my three solo shows were in the U.S.. I think it’s about being in the right place at the right moment,” Rico tells me. “The United States is the last frontier if you want to be a really successful artist. I mean, it can be the next level, so after 15 years of my career, it was very logical that the next step was the United States.” Though he shies away from politics, the borderless, humanistic art he creates takes on new meanings within U.S. galleries and museums. As Rico develops a more universal, hierarchy-dismantling visual language, his art becomes all the more salient in our current political climate. Indeed, Rico’s artworks and ideology address shared human experiences— from the beautiful to the grotesque. Despite all of our dualities, our hierarchies, our arbitrary delineations, we are all the same flawed humans, no matter where we are from.