painting modern day heroes with rene gonzalez

Born in Canada to political refugee parents before moving to Costa Rica at the age of nine, up and coming artist Rene Gonzalez has often felt like an outsider. Seeking expression and escapism through art, Rene spent his early youth painting murals...

06 November 2014, 12:55pm

After a chance meeting with curtor Filippo Tattoni-Marcozzi, Rene picked up his paintbrushes and set sail for London, where he's been painting ever since. Elevating modern day thinkers - whether that's scientists or hip hop stars - to the status of classical heroes, whilst bringing them back down to earth with a sense of contemporary street cool. Rene's large-scale paintings ask us to reexamine what it means to be a hero today. Ahead of his next show, curated by cool new pop up exhibition programme Parade Presents at Great Western Studios, we caught up with Rene to talk about cultural identities and the magical wonders of Wu Tang Clan.

How did you first become interested in painting?
When I came to Costa Rica as a kid I was obsessed with superheroes, but it was next to impossible to get access to any of the comic books or TV shows that I was used to. So, at school, instead of studying, I would draw my own heroes and stories. Soon I became interested in illustrations and storytelling as a way to escape into a fantasy world. The more the habit grew, so did my inclination to art and creativity.

Did growing up in Costa Rica affect your artistic sensibilities?
The nature of belief and its consequences plays an important part in my art, mainly because of the role it played in my life in Costa Rica, where mysticism and esoteric culture are prominent and very much subscribed to.

What's the art scene like there?
At the moment the art scene has become stale and of little relevance. I used to be involved in the underground art scene, making pop up exhibitions and transforming everyday spaces into gallery spaces, but this was limited because of the country's limited interest in art.

How would you describe your overall aesthetic?
Mostly figurative, my work draws from elements of comic book imagery, graffiti, art nouveau, art deco and the aesthetics of propaganda and commercial publicity.

Who has been your biggest artistic influence and why?
I think it's impossible to pinpoint one influence as the main one, as so many artists have influenced different aspects of my art and at different times. Basquiat was probably the first painter that introduced me to the "high art" scene. I found his expressive and socially subversive art very appealing. Once I started getting acquainted with art history, many greats became more relevant to my own practice... Gauguin, Schiele, Barbara Kruger, Neo Rauch, Adrian Ghenie, Kehinde Wiley, to name a few.

Why did you decide to come to London?
My friendship with Filippo Tattoni-Marcozzi, who has become a sort of mentor to me. He urged me to leave Costa Rica so that I could expand and grow as an artist. I took it as an opportunity to follow my dreams.

What is it about portraiture that fascinates you most?
I love that different layers of someone's character can be discerned just by painting their physical appearance. You can tell a person's story just by looking at them.

Why have you chosen figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Higgens, Brian Greene and Wu Tang Clan to portray and what is the significance of framing them within a classical context?
These, in my opinion, are the modern day heroes. For many different reasons, they are irrefutably brave and make sacrifices in situations of injustice and inequality that the current world finds itself in. I admire them enormously for this, and I want to show people how I see them, as glorious and beautiful human beings.

Have the people you portray ever seen your work?
I was recently contacted by Wu Tang's PR, saying that a collaboration in London might be possible next year. I also met with Professor Lawrence Krauss and gave him a painting of him and Richard Dawkins. It's hard for me to express how fulfilling this encounter was, as I hail this man as one of my biggest heroes.

What's next for you?
I am really excited to have my latest show curated by Milo Astaire and Ben Lebus. There are also plans for Frieze Art Fair next year, and I look forward to collaborating with the people I paint.


Text Tish Weinstock 
Photography Finn Constantine