Bert Rodriguez is doing a piece of performance art. It's called Without You I'm Nothing, and it's billed as "a lecture, conversation and four-course dinner," in which a new, original artwork will be revealed by the evening's end. But right now it apparently involves Rodriguez drunkenly telling the story of his first marriage.
The marriage, as he describes it, was his seminal work, the first of many pranklike performance art pieces that won him renown from his base in Miami and, now, L.A.
"It was my first year in college, and I had this psych class," Rodriguez tells the crowd of about 40 people, mostly men, who've paid $150 each to attend. "I picked the cutest girl in class. I told her that I just wanted a legal marriage, and that we'd get divorced after a year."
The young woman agreed, and they were married at the courthouse. A few weeks later, Rodriguez saw her at a party. "There's my wife," he thought to himself. "I should go talk to her."
Rodriguez is slouched on a stool in Chloe's, the back-room speakeasy at Golden Road Brewery in Glendale. He is 38, short, bearded and garrulously funny. When an overdressed hipster in a ripped shirt and an Indiana Jones–style fedora walks in late, interrupting his story, Rodriguez cries out, "Whoa, that's an intense hat, man!" The crowd of bros — sipping beers and sucking vape pens full of hash oil — laughs hysterically. It feels more like a schlumpy comic's three minutes than a contemporary artist's hourlong lecture.
He returns to his story. He and the woman became friends, then started dating. Rodriguez ended up losing his virginity to his wife — making it his seminal work in more ways than one.
But then things went south.
"By the end we hated each other. When it came time to actually get divorced, the bitterness was real. We couldn't wait to get away from each other," Rodriguez says with a mischievous smile. "That was when I found my roots as an artist."
The crowd laughs uneasily, as if they don't get fully get the irony, or are maybe just laughed out. Reading his audience, Rodriguez says, "I am so drunk. Let's eat!" and the herd is guided downstairs for dinner, where a manager respectfully requests that the guests stop smoking weed.
Before the first course, Rodriguez stands up, tings a glass and delivers an instruction to the diners, "Don't be cordial. I want you to be as sloppy as possible."
Rodriguez's performances play with the boundaries of art. One of his most famous works involved burying himself up to the neck for days (What a Tree Feels Like, 2009); another featured him cooking a traditional Cuban meal with his mother (A Meal I Make With My Mother, 2011). His work has been lauded and displayed across the globe, from Art Basel and Coachella in the United States to top museums in London, Paris and Naples, Italy. In 2008, his work In the Beginning, which involved him giving therapy sessions to attendees inside a white cube, was selected as part of New York's Whitney Biennial, a showcase of the most relevant contemporary art in the world.
But Rodriguez's brand of edgy performance art is difficult to monetize, which created tension with gallery owners. "Galleries pressure artists to make objects they can sell," he says. "They say, 'We need a ton of abstract paintings, that's what people want.' If an artist says, 'I don't want to make those,' the gallery says, 'Doesn't fucking matter. You want a career or not?'?"
In response, Rodriguez makes a lot of what he calls "fuck-you art" — pieces that reflect his frustration with galleries by toying with art-world tropes. In 2007's Advertising Works!, for example, he sold space on the walls of a gallery to corporate advertisers, then signed and re-sold the advertisements as his own work.
Shortly after he moved to L.A. from Miami in 2011, he had a particularly bad experience. Without consulting him, a gallery in Florida sold one of his sculptures at a 40 percent discount, then failed to notify him or pay him his 50 percent cut. Fed up, Rodriguez decided to strike out on a new path, independent from galleries. Hence Without You I'm Nothing, as well as The Bert Rodriguez Museum, an ongoing project that turns his WeHo apartment into a tiny art museum.
Instead of relying on a gallery, Rodriguez organizes the events himself and promotes them through social media — which he says is working.
"I'm trying to reframe what it is to be a creative person in contemporary culture," he says. "Since moving to L.A. and opening myself to all these weird things, I'm more productive than I've ever been, and I'm making more money."
Part of that is almost certainly Rodriguez's willingness to cooperate with brands. He makes art for corporate patrons, something he never would have considered when entrenched in the gallery world. Vape pen manufacturer G-Pen commissioned an art installation at Coachella in 2013 and a forthcoming sculpture of a teenage Snoop Dogg, to be shown guerrilla-style in parks across Los Angeles. Social media app Zoe, still in beta, is paying Rodriguez to "write" his signature across the country, à la Google Maps, by driving 10,000 miles in loops from L.A. to Miami. What Zoe wants in return for the performance, besides publicity resulting from being tied to Rodriguez, is unclear.
For many in the art world, brand partnerships such as these undermine integrity. They are the very definition of selling out. In the past, making advertisements could banish an artist from the upper ranks — just ask Salvador Dali.
Yet Rodriguez says working with brands doesn't mean making advertisements. He originates the ideas, and then the brands pay for them, no matter what they are. Surprisingly, he says brands exert less pressure on his ideas than galleries do, and ask for a smaller cut in return.
In any case, the "rules" of the mainstream art world are precisely what Rodriguez aims to undermine. Like many of the greats, he sees art in the ugly and the ordinary.
At Without You I'm Nothing, the dinner atmosphere is raucous. Friends of Rodriguez mix with paid guests, getting up and switching chairs, cross-pollinating the party with adolescent malaise. Rodriguez stands and slurs his way through descriptions of each course — the menu runs a nonsensical pattern, from Caprese to stuffed peppers to couscous to BBQ ribs before culminating in lasagna — all the while directing the waitresses to ply the guests with beer and wine.
When they're finished, Rodriguez stands up to unveil his anticipated new work. "Turn over your place mats," he says.
The guests realize that their place mats are made of thick, white cardboard. Rodriguez's signature adorns the back, with an "x/50" edition number scrawled below it.
Covered in dirty smudges and bits of food from their meal, the place mats are slipped into plastic sheaths, clutched tightly to chests to be carried home, framed and hung on the wall as works of art.
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