In ‘This, That, and The Third Eye’, the Dominican-American artist digs into his many-sided upbringing to paint a richly symbolic, vivid love letter to his home
Two fire hydrants burst onto a sunlit cement sidewalk in Kenny Rivero’s large-scale, vibrant painting Two Pompas (2023) — the first of his canvases to catch my eye upon entering London’s No.9 Cork Street, where the artist has just inaugurated his debut UK exhibition, This, That and The Third Eye — the haziness of the day transforming the steam from their waterjets into a pastel-shaded rainbow. It is a scene that, recurring through both film and photographic portrayals of New York City, including Magnum Photos image-maker Leonard Freed’s powerful black-and-white shot Fire Hydrant, Harlem (1963), feels weirdly familiar to me. And yet, never have I ever experienced it first-hand, my first and only visit to the Great Apple dating back to more than a decade ago, in 2012.
The unexpected sense of homeliness that transpires through Rivero’s instinctually painted canvas establishes an instant connection between each of the artworks presented in this show, which is powered by the New Yorkese gallery Charles Moffett. The same occurs to those who come to see it as they move around the room hosting the six expansive paintings that front the exhibition, before making their way into the more intimate space gathering a selection of smaller oil and drawing-based pieces.
Born in Washington Heights to Dominican parents in 1981 and now based in the Bronx, Rivero turns to his practice as a means of dissecting and understanding societal constructs determining the predominant view of socio-geographic solidarity, familial expectations, race and gender dynamics. Besides leveraging art to reckon with the present, he also looks at his craft as an opportunity to platform the kaleidoscope of influences that shaped his childhood. That Rivero was raised in a household incorporating different religious faiths, from Christianity to Vodun, Santeria and Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices, is something an attentive viewer can grasp while glancing at the artworks part of this new exhibition — his fourth one with Charles Moffett’s eponymous NY-based gallery.
Across all of the canvases encountered in the largest room hosting the presentation, as well as in some of the small-scale drawings and paintings featured in the other one, (third) eyes, flames (The Last Torch Flower, 2023), mosaicked stained glass windows (Church Lot, 2023), sketched skulls and plastic mirrors — Rivero’s ultimate trademark — set the tone for his investigation into belonging, belief and ritual. Strategically placed in the scene so as to form a symbolic triangular, or trinity-inspired, structure bringing his paintings Burning Buoys (2023), Two Pompas (2023) and The Very Large Array (This Is The Rhythm Of The Night) (2023) closer together, the artist’s mysterious eyelets invite the audience to step into a transcendental dimension where distant memories melt in the heat of a New York City summer day morphing into as many fascinating vignettes of life.
Besides addressing themes concerning Rivero’s own personal journey with due depth and reflection, This, That, and The Third Eye also explores the breadth of the Dominican-American experience — here hinted at through recurring references to its hair (Lunar Map, 2022) fashion and hype culture — eventually unveiling a more subtle, humorous side of the artist’s offering. The Very Large Array (This Is The Rhythm Of The Night), for example, goes from being a lighthearted, sun-kissed rendition of the uptown paths running along the Hudson River to being a play on a 2014 viral phone call between a Dominican listener and the host of a Spanish-speaking radio channel. Having been asked to play the song ¿Esas son Reebok o son Nike? (“Are those Reebok or Nike?”) by his interlocutor — or what Italian band Corona’s 1993 iconic track This Is The Rhythm Of The Night sounded like to him in his language — the presenter surprisingly managed to satisfy the listener, whose enthusiasm pervades the ending of the hilarious clip.
From the chalk-drawn game of catch infusing Rivero’s Church Lot (2023) canvas with an underlay of melancholia to the baseball glove appearing in The Very Large Array (This Is The Rhythm Of The Night) and the reverberating lyricism permeating all of the works on display, This, That, and The Third Eye stands as homage to the artist’s hometown and the imperceptible, yet powerful manifestations that make him, him.
Words by Gilda Bruno. Photography by Nicholas Moss/Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Charles Moffett.