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Victor Romao: Growing up Rural

Nov 26, 2017

This is a story of a young man growing up in an inward-looking town where fitting in (for the artist) was never really going to happen. What did happen was a spark of creativity, an outlet for his works, which are a direct response to fear, disparity, and isolation. At first they seem plainly mischievous and sinister, hatched in a young man’s fantasy world but the draftsmanship and rawness in the work is pervasive. The expressive twists and turns in the violence and recognizable masculine tension link to the absurd and tinge on surreal. But the reality of it being, reality in and of itself. As we read daily of male-brutality (something that has always existed), is it possible for change? Are these works depicting some form of hope?

TUSSLE: Your new body of work that you created for your recent exhibition at SB Contemporary in Windsor, Ontario are mainly images of tree branches which seem slightly sinister in their dislocated representation. And which seem like a departure from your previous work. Can you comment on your process and how this latest body of work came to light?

VICTOR ROMAO: This new body of work was actually started in January of this year (2017).  Although it may seem that these new works are a departure from older pieces, they still possess similar conceptual threads, such as: male identity in rural communities, male violence, and the uncanny.  


These latest drawings depicting logs/severed branches/limbs, are based on various logs that I collected from my father's wood piles stacked in his back yard.  The chopping of wood is very much a masculine activity which is also associated with physical strength; an attribute that is very much admired in rural males.  Men often identify themselves with the types of jobs they have, especially in rural communities.  


In Sigmund Freud's essay titled Das Unheimliche", or "The Uncanny", he describes how a severed human limb can cause one to experience uncanniness due to our fear that it may still move, though we know it's not possible.  This combination of fear and confusion is a result the familiar clashing with the unfamiliar and visa versa.   I'm also playing with the words "limb" and "violence"…as in the act of severing a part from its host.

T: What is your relationship with nature?

VR: Personally, I feel a strong attraction and repulsion to nature, especially wooded areas.  This duality is very much a part of how one can experience the uncanny.  In much of my work, the setting is almost always in or in close proximity to wooded areas.  I grew up living near forests and spent lots of time hunting with my father in this type of landscape.  These memories are both good and bad.  Good, in a sense that I was spending time with my father in a beautiful setting. Bad, because I never enjoyed taking part in the killing and dismemberment of animals.  


I also grew up watching plenty of horror movies in which the stories took place in or near the woods.  FIlms such as: Dracula, Evil Dead, Blair Witch Project, and recently The Witch.

T: In the past you have used  bat and monster masks to cloak the characters in your work which evoke darkness, death, witchcraft and overall evil. Is this what you hope the viewer will take away from this type of provocative imagery? Are these characters up to evil things?

VR: Yes, the use of "props" that evoke uneasiness, are intended to make viewers question who the individuals are.  I use facial coverings as metaphors for how some men can hide certain emotions, bigotries, and behaviours that society deems as "ugly" and not acceptable…especially in non-rural communities.  In my personal history, attributes such as racism, intimate partner violence and patriarchy are accepted by many as "normal" behaviours and attitudes.


T: Can you share with us an event from your past or present that illustrates how growing up in Windsor, Ontario has influenced your work?

VR: I didn't grow up in Windsor.  Until the age of 26, I lived in a small rural town in Essex County.  I witnessed many fights and brawls, mostly due to drunken idiocy.  Nevertheless, I have always felt extremely uneasy with real-life violence.  Maybe because in some strange way, I was expected to behave in the same manner within that community.  BTW, I never did, in case you were wondering.


There is a story though, that I have referenced in past works that I can relay to you.  This story involves a 16 year girl who ran away from home to live with her boyfriend and his family.  He, his father and brothers, had had run-ins with law enforcement a number of times and didn't have a good reputation.  The girl's brothers, father and cousins took it upon themselves to retrieve the girl after they were told by the police, that since she was of age, they couldn't force her to go back home.  I remember hearing about the street brawls which involved the use of chains, baseball bats and pool cues.  I also remember seeing the bruises on my friend's backs after they unsuccessfully returned without their sister and cousin.

T: What are your top five exhibitions or other current popular culture that have impacted you and your practice, and why?

VR: I am mostly influenced by works that don't normally function within today's white cube galleries.  Works such as: 16th and 17th century wooden polychromed religious statuary, the works of Robert Crumb (although his work is now exhibited in galleries around the world), and various anonymous artists whose works are considered "illustrations" because they accompany text.  I'm also a big fan of hand-coloured etchings. John James Audubon's the Birds of America is one good example.  Contemporary artists whose works I do enjoy are: Marcel Dzama, Aurel Schmidt, and Shary Boyle.  These are just a few that come to mind.


Here's what I enjoy about these artists' works:


1. Polychromed statuary -  Their eeriness.  Especially works done in Spain during the Spanish anti-reformation.


2. Robert Crumb - His brutal honesty.  No filters when it comes what he feels about the subject matter he depicts.


3. Classic book illustration - Beautiful quality of line work.


4.  Audubon - I'm a printmaker as well and can appreciate the work involved in producing the Birds of America.


5. Dzama - His absurd hybrid characters and his reference to Henry Darger.


6. Aurel Schmidt - Incredible technical skills and subject matter


7. Shary Boyle - Her references to being an outsider and of course her beautiful sculptures.

Victor Romao is represented by SB Contemporary Art. 

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