The Houston-based artist talks DJ culture, liner notes, text panels and The Smiths.

"Our Sin Was in Our Hips" by Dario Robleto

"It’s not fair to compare Dario Robleto’s 'Prelives of the Blues' show to a butterfly collection, but the parallels are inescapable — and inexplicable," Gambit's Eric Bookhardt wrote in his review of the show now on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. "Most of the 24 precisely ordered and taxonomically arranged sculptures and works on paper are said to be inspired by blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll. They take many forms.... What does any of this have to do with the blues or any other soulful music? Frankly, not much."

In his review, Bookhardt brings very traditional notions of rock 'n' roll to his examination of Robleto's work, assuming that rock 'n' roll - or good rock 'n' roll - is simply about blues and soul, an assumption that can't stand much scrutiny. He's right that rock 'n' roll is unquestionably a central part of the show, and the work is disarmingly pristine, but its more accurate to think of rock 'n' roll as one of Robleto's materials and not the theme. 


The Houston-based Robleto will deliver a talk Friday night at 6 at NOMA as part of its Where Y'art series. Here's a preview: 

"The Prelives of the Blues" was inspired by New Orleans. How do we see that in the show?

Survival's an overarching theme that I've spent my whole career exploring in different ways. Different topics from war to things like the paranormal community and the way people don't want to give up on losing someone. The list could go on and on. My fascination with DJ culture over the years; I've always understood it as  a form of survival, especially when you factor in the history of sampling in hip-hop. I'm drawn to that big topic and it filters down to the ways people have solved that basic problem of survival. The city is immersed in that and has a very unique story to tell about that. 

Most of the works we picked were heavily music-influenced. Most of the core works - the hips, the hands - they're about being born into it. How do we become who we are based on our past, our parents' past,  our lineage? I thought that story was very relevant to New Orleans as well - the good and the bad that comes with that. I like the idea that we're connected at some fundamental level to the past through music.

Out of curiosity, why do you always show the hips piece ["Our Sin Was in Our Hips," which is made in part with his parents' ground-up record collection] at or around ground level?

The piece was about me grappling with my parents' generation and their understanding of rock 'n' roll at its inception, which I'm completely fascinated with. The idea that the devil actually found his way into a rhythm fascinates me so much, and I was always interested in how that made a generation feel personally and sexually. The way that moving their bodies became dirty. Because the piece was about the birth of me - and I would argue many of us are here because of rock 'n' roll in a very direct way, putting people in the right mood at the right moment - the piece is meant to look and feel dirty and raw. There's nothing romantic about being boned on the floor with a spotlight on them. It's meant to reveal the dirtiness. It's not a bad thing. A lot of life was made from it. 

Those are the sculptural decisions, to reduce that basic act to two hips moving in a certain way to create new life - to bone on bone - to reflect how I felt about that music. I'm always envious because I want my musical decisions to be that radical. I want there to be that much riding on what I buy.     

I find it fascinating to think about my parents' music for different reasons. My mom was in Memphis and saw Elvis play county fairs, but one thing that interests me is how my parents - and I suspect most adults of that generation - put rock 'n' roll aside when they got jobs and started families. I realized that baby boomers are probably the first generation that never felt the obligation to put their music down when they entered their adult lives, and I wonder if that sense that it can be an ongoing part of their lives took some of the radicalness out of music? 

I think so. It's always hard to go back if you weren't there, but the evidence suggests what you just said - that it was truly radical. It blows my mind that someone could think the devil had found its way into a disc of vinyl and could change a whole generation. 

You make me think of one other point that is in that piece, and that's my fascination with aging rock stars, the Mick Jaggers and Keith Richards of the world. How one body can absorb that much punishment over a period of time on an actual physical level. I'm fascinated with them as human specimens. Their bodies encompasses a unique history. They seem like true anomalies. I don't know how to explain how they've done it physically, so the piece is kind of a nod to the elements of that generation, when it gets down to broken bones, which is becoming more of a reality for many of them. The difference between the power of their youth as rock stars still perform today, but their bodies don't hold up the same way.

I was thinking as you talked about the piece being dirty that even on the floor, I didn't see it as dirty. In general, your work has a very finished, very pristine nature. I see the grittiness and the grain when I see the bones, but I never would have thought of it as "dirty." Do you see the pristine quality in your work, and if so, where does it come from?

I certainly have this other side of me that is rooted in the language of science and putting something under a microscope, and the way we're forced to look at something when you isolate it. I would also say with the hips piece and the hands piece that my attempts to make them read as completely authentic for the trompe l'oeil effect - I think because I work so hard to make them look right, they come across as pristine. There's a weird tension because to make them look authentically dirty, they look pristine again because of the way that they're made. 

A lot of that can be installation. The hips change from venue to venue. Ideally, I like them to be on a concrete floor with much harsher light. In this setting, they're not as dirty as they have looked in the past. That's a unique piece. My other work gets more pristine too, but my cut paper work - if you look closely, the hand-madeness is very clear. It's not about perfection; it's about as good as I can possibly do with an X-Acto knife and paper. There's a messiness about them that I like.

For me, one of the interesting things about your show is how rock 'n' roll is an integral part of your work, but when people walk through the show, they see unassuming, domestic items - a chest of drawers, spools of thread in Mason jars, nothing that looks like rock 'n' roll. What's the thought behind seemingly coding rock 'n' roll into such domestic items?

There's two ways to answer that. There's my bigger philosophy about sampling, and then in this show the domestic pieces were highlighted because the family lineage aspect, being attached to the past.

My earliest artistic efforts were in DJ culture, and the breakthrough I had in my thinking was that I may never be a great DJ, but maybe I could be an interesting object maker. What I wanted to do was utilize the skills of the DJ and the philosophy behind them and translate them to the sculpture world. With any good DJ, there's the basic skill set you have - scratching, beat matching, or song selection, which is crucial - but for me the artistry of a great DJ has been what they turned it into by clashing them together, that there was a hidden universe within disparate songs. With the right tweaking, you could blossom a whole new world out of it. Patsy Cline's voice is a great sculptural problem, in fact. Could I find a physical way to embody both the inherent strength of her voice and persona, and at the same time account for the equally inherent fragility and tenderness she conveyed so well? A thread is both a source of repair and strength when used the right way, but also easily snapped and broken. I used her 45 rpm record of "I Fall to Pieces" and I slowly with an X-acto knife unwound the record, going around the outer rim. I kept going around and around until I had made this incredibly long thread, which I then spooled. The creative act there is to find out how I can enhance the reading of her story by turning her voice into a very fragile piece of thread? Over the years I found more and more complex ways to find these sculptural and visual things that are hidden within the music on a physical level, but it's still rooted in DJ'ing. I spent a lot of time thinking about what songs to work with and what to turn them into to enrich the whole experience. 

One of the things that I took away from those pieces is a theme that has fascinated me recently, which is how omnipresent rock 'n' roll is. I've talked to young Cajun musicians about the influence of rock 'n' roll, and no matter how dedicated they are to the music and culture's traditions, they can't entirely escape rock 'n' roll's influence in 2012. I saw that in these domestic pieces as well - the idea that it's so omnipresent that it has permeated even the most mundane of objects.

That's a great reading. I love that. I agree with you; it's everywhere around me. 

Because I'm sensitive to things and objects, it's natural for me to figure out how to turn the audio one into a physical one. When you think of dancing and how important it is in relation to rock 'n' roll, we all understand the music physically. It's not that foreign territory to have a visceral experience to rock 'n' roll. I hope I took it to a new level. What if you really have to deal with Patsy Cline in this unexpected way, like holding your shirt together or sewing a button on your shirt? It's that intertwined into my daily experience.

One thought that came into focus for me when seeing your show upstairs from the Thornton Dial show at NOMA was how important the text panel is. In both cases, something essential to the work is missed if you don't read the list of material. I've heard from people who think that if the piece needs the text panel, it must indicate some deficiency in the art. How do you resolve that tension?

That's a big one. I've spent years having that fight. The best way I can sum it up is that my earliest experiences were with music as I think yours were too, and if you break down that experience for me as it was for many of us, its an audible experience, it's a visual experience, it's a text-based experience through the liner notes. The lyric sheet, who produced it, what kind of equipment did they use, or the biography of the artist. Of course you can appreciate Billie Holiday, but god it sure helps to know her story when you really listen to those words. It was a tactile experience. The smell of the record. My experiences were always multi-dimensional, so when I became an artist, it was instinctual that what I created should have a similar experience. 

In the art world, it's more complicated because - this is my opinion here - there's an uncritiqued or untested bias that the art experience should be this pure, unadulterated visual experience. Certainly you can have that, and a lot of our history is written on that point, but it's not an experience I understand, especially in 2012 in a world defined by multi-dimensional experiences. Everybody assumes their iPad will give them every possible sensory experience, or DJ culture, I'd even argue, it's hard-wired into that generation's thinking that the audible level is only one level of the true enjoyment of it. The music fan has one thing, but as I moved over to the art world, I realized that there's this art historical perspective and I simply don't buy it that the work can't have this symbiotic relationship with the language the way good liner notes do to a song. 

The bottom line is that it still has to be an interesting object, and I believe I'm making compelling objects that, if you didn't have access to my text or the title, you'd still get something out of it. My attitude is that it's there if you want it. I think most music fans understand that attitude that if you want to dig in a little more, there's another layer, and another and another and another. That's valuing the role of the fans, which is a huge part of my thinking. I even have a theory of that, and the basis of it is that the fan will go further, so as an artist, I have to make sure there's something there to go further with.

As I thought about this issue, the connection that I made was how often pop songs seem innocuous on the surface, but when you hear the lyrics and think about what's really being said, you realize that there's an entire subversive dimension. I wondered if you were mirroring the subversive nature of rock 'n' roll.

In the two experiences of art that we're talking about - visual arts and music - on the music side, we're hard-wired to understand that language is on equal footing with the sound playing off each other in subversive ways. In the visual arts it doesn't quite work the same way for reasons I don't accept. I think often people struggle with my work because they come to it assuming the visual experience has to be this way and not reflecting on the fact that most of all of us have wonderful art experiences in life with language and images and sound all coming together. I'm drawing off a tradition that is not art historical to make my objects, which is part of the tension. 

Your email address references the Smiths. Have you done Smiths-related art?

No, but Morrissey and Marr as an art duo, it doesn't get much higher for me. I remember so vividly getting home with a new Smiths album and by their last album, knowing instinctually I would go grab my dictionary and my encyclopedia off the shelf as I walked to the record player because I was guaranteed that my vocabulary would increase or there would be a reference to Caligula that I didn't know and had better figure out so I would understand the song. For me, those two were the ones who gave me this full art experience of language and sound and those beautiful album designs all coming together for me in the most perfect way. I've never used the Smiths album or a Morrissey album in my art, but what I learned from them is all over what I do.


[Full disclosure: I wrote an essay for NOMA's catalogue for "Prelives of the Blues."]

Dario Robleto will speak at NOMA Friday night at 6 p.m. "Prelives of the Blues" will be on display until September 16.