Carlos Rolón

Carlos Rolón / Dzine Photoshoot for Pattern Magazine

If Carlos Rolón‘s name sounds familiar, it is because he’s quickly becoming a household name on the national contemporary art scene. This story initially ran in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of PATTERN magazine. Shauta Marsh, Tube Factory’s chief curator conducted the interview while working with him on his 50 GRAND exhibition.


The power and A/C are out again, unexpectedly, in Carlos Rolón/Dzine’s studio on the edge of Chicago’s Chinatown. Rolón’s studio covers 5,000 square feet on the fourth floor of a century-old building where they used to make the Ford Model T. The air is still and hot but Rolón and his team of eight continue to gold leaf, making new paintings with repurposed shattered tempered glass; Those pieces and new tropical floral oil paintings are inspired by Rolón’s homeland and second home, Puerto Rico.

A lone power line snakes to a hanging lamp providing a glow across light blue and gold patterned baroque patterns in the kitchen area. There is still much attention to details considering the circumstances. There’s plenty of water, coffee, plenty of space, plenty of materials, but not enough time.

Rolón has multiple new works and shows to create: paintings for the newly established Midwest International Art Fair, Expo Chicago, various works for a solo exhibition at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, commissions for American megastar collectors like Glenn Fuhrman, who opened the Flag Foundation in NYC. Rolón is one of the art world’s fastest rising stars.

His works transcend class, melding painting, sculpture, and found objects, Rolón/Dzine’s art practice explores the ways culture, both popular and historic, influence public and private spaces. It sells well, but it’s also socially conscious. A first-generation immigrant of Puerto Rican descent, he is interested in issues of identity, integration, and aspiration. He uses his work to question the concepts of luxury and craft-making. Many of his pieces, like Imperial Nail Salon (My Parent’s Living Room), Barbershop, BOXED, and Flea Market Botanica, all require the audience to participate.

These site-specific installations are sometimes artistic reincarnations of his childhood home. With Imperial Nail Salon (My Parent’s Living Room), he explores domesticity and community by creating an exact replica of his ’70s childhood living room where his mother ran an unlicensed hair and nail salon.

Aside from the smell of perm chemicals, Rolón enjoyed hearing the women gossip about current events or personal issues while getting a makeover. “I felt a genuine need for the general public to understand the sense of community this bootleg salon created and that my mother indirectly created,” says Rolón. “There were no boundaries of color, gender, age, or cultural background.”

With a recent installation, Barbershop, Rolón offered the perspective of barbers as sculptors. Participants received a custom fade or graphic haircut that would suit or create their personal identity. Inspired by his weekly visits to various neighborhood barbershops, this piece was a hybrid of those spaces and a lone photograph taken by Jack Delano (Barbershop in Bayamon, 1941).

Rolón’s installations offer the viewer a firsthand account of personal stories, behavior, and free-flowing creativity. Though many of his works have personal stories attached to them, they only hint at his personal life and past, instead allowing his audience to have the last say. “My goal is to tell stories that you normally don’t see in an art institution or within the confines of a gallery,” explains Rolón. ‘The idea of doing the barbershop was completely organic since I spend time in public spaces I find very intimate. I admire the freedom and the idea of being true to one’s self. You find that within the barbershop, but it’s difficult to find in the fine art world.”

Despite his interest in art, Rolón didn’t always feel at home at museums or galleries. His studio works, especially his installations, help break down barriers between the audience and the institutions. He once turned Chicago’s Monique Meloche gallery storefront into a bootleg barbershop, drawing in families looking for haircuts. The response is usually one of confusion.

“People have literally walked in with kids in tow, looking to see if they can get a haircut, and the attendants have to let them know it’s an art Gallery,” says Rolón.

And when the visitor lingers, he says, “That for me is the artwork. That is the performance. That is the part where the community is now engaged. All of a sudden, they are discovering they can walk into an art gallery and feel welcomed,” says Rolón.

My goal is to tell stories that you normally don’t see in an art institution or within the confines of a gallery.

Part of the appeal of Rolón’s work and what makes it approachable is his use of identity, culture, subculture, domesticity, and popular culture. He infuses it all with stories and a fine art aesthetic. He doesn’t worry about cultural appropriation or possibly mainstreaming subculture when a person or museum purchases his work.

“A lot of people want to live vicariously through artists. I think that’s wonderful. I personally live vicariously through different mediums and experiences. I live vicariously through listening to a rock-and-roll song that was made 30 years ago or through an installation by Olafur Eliasson,” says Rolón.

He is also using his work to challenge stereotypes. For example, the three-channel video, Bladez of Glory, which he made with filmmaker Joey Garfield. “In the film, one of the characters is a woman chosen because she is visually stunning. She’s beautiful. She’s also a proud lesbian and a bit street. She died at birth for two minutes. She had her chest cut open and now has a tattoo of a beating heart line above her chest. She’s quite funny and sassy, putting the men in check because they all want something from her, but she wants nothing to do with them,” says Rolón. “Based on her appearance, the viewer usually ends up being wrong about her personality. Ninety percent of the time, people are not who you think they are. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

However, Rolón does appreciate a fine cover. Fashion is very important to him both in his work and personally. He travels a lot so he appreciates nice things, especially luggage.

“I work hard and travel hard. I’m a very particular shopper. Have you heard of Rimowa Luggage? The German manufacturer has been in the business for over a century. They make the steel cases that get banged up, which makes them unique and classic. They’re an icon of the ’50s travel industry,” he explains. “I’m the kind of person who will buy something that could be considered expensive, but will last for a very long time. Same with clothing. I don’t mind buying something nice for myself, something by Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurent, or Burberry. It’s ok to be kind to yourself.”

A newer body of Rolón’s work consists of using repurposed, shattered, tempered glass from auto body shops. The glass arrives at his studio labeled “1984 Caddy” or “1979 Regal.” Though these pieces aren’t as interactive, he’s excited about the stories they contain.

“Those come from automobiles that someone has lived in or drove for years. We’re combining stories with people’s personal identities that are tied to their vehicles,” says Rolón. “How many times are you listening to the radio or having a private conversations with people within the confines of a car? Obviously, glass is not keeping secret recordings, but that car is tied to your individuality and holding your energy.”

His new work also has loose ties to growing up in Chicago’s Brighton Park during the 1980s. “People would get cars customized. This idea of a custom Trans Am playing Led Zeppelin or a young hip hop kid customizing his newly purchased Conion Boombox by drawing on it or decorating it with stickers. Both cultures had their own fashion statements. Both have inspired the idea of customization within my studio practice.”

There’s something very beautiful about freshly broken window glass glistening in the sunlight, but you know something violent has just happened.

He also reflects on how in the ’80s it wasn’t uncommon to walk along the street and sporadically see vandalized cars with the radio ripped out. “There’s something very beautiful about freshly broken window glass glistening in the sunlight, but you know something violent has just happened,” says Rolón.

“I am very proud that my studio practice is multifaceted. I allow space for the creation of identity, hope, and chance. There’s an immediate connection I’m able to make with the viewer. Once that viewer connects with the work, and they begin to investigate, they find out there’s an underlying story. I’m really proud of the fact I can make work that is personal but able to cross over to a pop-culture level.”

This is why whether you are an artist, an insurance salesperson, a fashionista, a waitress, or a day-trader, Rolón is a person to watch.

Photography by Analu Maria Lopez.
More from Shauta Marsh

Cultural Architects Series: Theaster Gates

This story originally appeared in VOL. 12 Fall 2017 print edition of...
Read More