Experiencing the Intimate Distance of Ofelia Rodríguez

Privacy and boundaries were important as connection to the Latin American artist, whose signature 'magic boxes' hide many curiosities.

It might initially seem quite a strange pairing. Ofelia Rodríguez’s work, so steeped in Colombian culture, is a far cry from Bristol’s quaint Englishness. But a quiet unity is achieved by “Talking in Dreams,” a life survey of the recently deceased artist at Bristol’s Spike Island.

A brightly lit gallery installation of colorful paintings and sculptures
Ofelia Rodríguez, “Talking in Dreams,” installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. Photograph by Dan Weill

The exhibition space is a concentric square—the outside rim holding works advancing in chronological order starting from 1968. A central space holds yet more works from the 1990s grouped by the theme of landscape. The exhibition begins in the middle of the room’s southern flank with Rodríguez’s early-career works created in Bogota. A long exhibition table shows A4-sized sketches of abstract jigsaw-like shapes, these works showcase a nascent preoccupation with unusual shapes, the surreal and bright colors.

Carnivorous Flower (1985) on the southwestern corner acts as a literal and figurative turning point, Rodríguez as she enters her forties leaves the two dimensions of the canvas creating a monstrous plant with a long green tail of fabric studded with nails. As she moves through the 1980s and leaves Columbia, Rodríguez vision sharpened, gaining in confidence and humor. Her work becomes increasingly strange, larger in scale and incorporates found objects.

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In the north of the gallery, we are first introduced to Rodríguez’s magic boxes. They are cupboard-like wooden objects, painted in bright colors. They hide dolls, animal figurines, horns and fingers, as well as other elements. Animistic, impish and endlessly fascinating, the three magic boxes on this side sit beside a series of large-scale paintings that also showcase the playful and magical slant that solidified in her work.

A painting of a wide open mouth with various appendages sprouting from it
Ofelia Rodriguez, “Dedos Germinando de la lengua” (Fingers Sprouting from the Tongue), 1996 copy. Courtesy the artist / Photograph by Dan Weill

The paintings are bright, kitsch and surreal, incorporating notions of risk, Carnival and the wilderness: a flamingo sits at the face of a clock, a palm tree sprouts from an ear and the Virgin Mary is penned in by open safety pins. On the eastern side, the final side, the magic boxes sprout into a cluster allowing you to explore their intricacies. This is where I first notice the signature conspicuously on the side of nearly every box: ‘Ofelia’.

A brightly lit gallery installation of colorful paintings and sculptures
Ofelia Rodríguez, “Talking in Dreams,” installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. Photograph by Dan Weill

“Talking in Dreams” is an intensely researched survey. There are more than seventy items on display—the quantity feels dizzying. One thing that is obvious throughout is that Rodríguez was an incredibly private artist, in one of the texts pasted onto the wall she is quoted as saying “There is a sense of loneliness, and reaching out for something, which is very important to understanding my work […] though I can’t help fearing that, with time and distance, those links may lose their sharp focus, grow blunter and wash away.”

A painting of a red heart on a yellow circle with what look to be gray wings
Ofelia Rodríguez, “The Heart Fighting Death” (El Corazon Peleando La Muerte), undated, mixed media painting on canvas. Courtesy the artist / Photograph by Dan Weill

Distance was important to her. The only grouping Rodríguez ever really seemed comfortable with was that of her own region, that of being a Latin American artist. In one painting she hides a photo of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera within a protruding green door; in the exhibition cabinet on the western side of the gallery, there is a biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez which uses a painting of hers as cover art. Otherwise, Rodríguez’s work is entirely her own. You can see this in how she signs her name on nearly every painting and box. ‘Ofelia’, clear, well-defined and possessive. Her signature is the signature at the end of a letter or a diary. Rodríguez’s privateness is partially why it makes so much sense that this exhibition is taking place outside of London, where she finally settled; it feels like a final refusal.

The works stop around 2010; Rodríguez was not in good health towards the end of her life and stopped creating. She was for this same reason not involved in putting the exhibition together—she passed away shortly before it opened. Carmen Julia of Spike Island gallery curated the exhibition along with the help of Rodríguez’s husband. Together they curated a show that is considered and impactful—a loving tribute to a private artist who is perhaps not widely known but certainly should be.

Talking in Dreams” is on view at Spike Island through January 14.

Experiencing the Intimate Distance of Ofelia Rodríguez