Iterview by Jerry Peña
So let's start with getting to know Rene Franco to help those who don't know you yet. Tell me a bit about yourself in regards to where you grew up? Your earliest encounter with art as a viewer and now as a maker?
I grew up in Atwater, close to Echo Park and Glendale. It’s a really quiet slice of LA in a lot of ways with the LA River and the bike paths pretty much in my backyard. I attended the San Francisco Art Institute after high school which completely changed my life and really was the most important step in making art the central part of my life. Before that in high school, my primary interest in art had always been through film. But I also remember a trip to MOCA downtown one weekend where Rauschenberg’s combines really left an impression on me. It’s wild too because MOCA was the first place I wound up working when I moved back to LA from San Francisco. I learned a ton in the short time I was there but most importantly I connected with an amazing group of people that I feel have deeply influenced the trajectory I’m currently on now.
Now that the formalities are done I want to talk about this selection of work. We talked a bit about how it was a documentation of the trump era and painters like Philip Guston came up. Can you expand on that in regards to the work and the artists you're interested in?
Guston haunts me and this extended nightmare we’ve been trapped in more than any other artist I can think of. The backlash to the delay of his retrospective confirms that it's a feeling that’s widely held as well. Beyond the obvious sense of how normalized it is that we have white supremacists parading around the White House and cable news (sans the hoods), the heaviness of iconography from that last decade, which pulls from his roots during the WPA era and his abstract period, all remixed with this infusion in cartoonish figuration-something that’s almost a cliche now among figurative painters- makes him the most complete American painter of the 20th century for me. I’ve also felt a strong affinity towards the work of Peter Saul in the past few months. His work really hits at the sheer absurdity and horror of where we’re at and how in particular right wing political figures seem to gleefully inhabit how grotesque they actually are. Other painters I look at include Max Ernst, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Peter Williams, Cheyenne Julien, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Mike Kelley, Carlos Almaraz Noah Davis, and Matthew Wong.
My biggest curiosity in your paintings is how you control the amount of information because there is such a slew of it on the daily that can affect it. You mentioned how informed you stay in regards to paying attention to the news with this presidency. How does it affect your work in the decisions not only in the context of painting but also choosing what material to paint?
My decisions over what makes it into a painting have gone from incredibly analytical to very intuitive. I used to have an extremely rigorous process of getting off work, eating dinner and watching the news for an hour or so and then diving right into painting for a few hours, drawing on subject matter that was still fresh on my mind. Because of the breakneck pace of all the scandals unfolding, it made sense to approach the painting and drawing as a form of additional “coverage” that replicated the chaos of the 24 news cycle.
This has changed a lot especially due to Covid, where that work-life-studio balance has completely collapsed. There’s also a pace at which I can follow things now without feeling constantly overwhelmed trying to stuff so much content into a surface. I have recurring subjects and faces I’m more familiar with now than when the shock of the Trump era still felt fresh. Based on that, there are certain figures (most of them white supremacists) who wind up in a painting without a plan to do so.
Lately I’ve been spending more time on bigger paintings that incorporate the imagery I’ve been developing into types of multi-character narratives that still press at things we’re all collectively dealing with. The unfortunate reality is that while things are constantly in motion in the news as it pertains to the president and the election, a lot of things are not materially changing. For example, a painting I started back in June at the height of the protests, still might feel “urgent” because the news cycle hasn't really resolved itself and we’re continuing to grapple with issues of systemic racism. The Trump administration’s greatest accomplishment has really only been trapping us in a space of claustrophobic stasis where nothing moves forward at a legislative level. But the broader point is that issues like police brutality are exacerbated by figures like Trump and are not solely the result of him alone.
In a sense during quarantine I’ve found myself trading immediacy for a more intimate view of bigger picture things. How do endure the climate crisis atop this completely self-destructive iteration of white supremacy? What does image making contribute (if anything) to undoing or even understanding those things? These are some things I’m working through constantly.
Being an artist in the era of Covid and the trump presidency has put a strain on the mental health of a lot of creatives. In your work you are constantly engulfed in that information. What are some things you do and would be willing to share with our readers in regards to keeping yourself as balanced as you can mentally in these times?
To be completely honest, it’s extremely hard to disconnect when things are constantly in flux. I’ve found having some sense of self discipline to redistribute my energy is key though. Everything can’t always go into the painting, which is why it’s been heartening that there’s been so many opportunities for activism from home lately. Spending some time calling your representatives, phone-banking, or participating in Zoom town halls and discussions has been really great just to remind me that other people are ready to make big changes to a lot of the injustices we’re all staring down.
I also have a strict no news after 6pm rule I try to follow so that I can fill my evenings with a lot more time for reading. On weekends I unplug from the news altogether and try to do things like go on hikes with my dog Willie. Interruptions from friends as well even if its just in the form of watching a dumb movie together on Netflix Party also feels more vital than ever lately.
Lastly I want to ask about what you have planned in the immediate future. Any shows or projects you are working on? and also where is the best place for people to see and stay up to date with your work?