How the New York-based artist broke through.
New York-based artist Kenny Rivero is a creature of habit. He spends most of his time on the same Manhattan block where both his home and his work space are located, but the past year has motivated him to break out in new ways. From his object-filled studio, he spoke about why now is the right time to delve deeper into his music practice, how the Capitol insurrection inspired his new workout routine and why Philip Guston’s work continues to challenge him.
What makes a work of art good?
For me as the person making it, I have to be able to wander in it. I think what I’m looking for when I’m finishing a painting is, “Am I setting up a circumstance where I can discover something on my own?” Works of art that don’t engage me in that way, I don’t necessarily think that they’re not good, but there’s no connection for me to look further or ask deeper questions or become curious about something else about myself. There’s a painting by Philip Guston called Gladiators at MoMA, and I feel like that’s a painting I could attend with in my studio forever. I don’t necessarily think it’s great, but it’s something that continues to challenge me and make me think about what it means to document a city, what it means to depict things.
Do you generally agree with the way people write and talk about your work? Do you think people have to develop a vocabulary for how they understand your work first?
Yes and no. I think I do a good job of setting up a conversation for people who end up writing about the work, but I also think there is this New York, nostalgic framing that a lot of people use that tends to get too romantic and doesn’t ever really align with the darkness I’m trying to depict. I think there’s also potential art historical things people are using to read the work. Thinking about a white canon isn’t going to give you the vocabulary for my work. I think my use of color aligns more with houses in the Dominican Republic or the color of garbage, sometimes, which can be really beautiful because it’s an accumulation of all these things. People are going to read into it as more of an art historical connection. I feel like I talk about other forms of image vocabulary a lot more.
What do you listen to while you work?
I listen to the radio. I’m a very big radio person. I always had a radio growing up. I grew up with the kitchen radio on, the TV in the living room was always on, my brother always had his TV going. Everybody had a TV on and a radio on. I feel really comfortable in that kind of claustrophobic audio space. Sometimes I’ll have the radio on and I’ll have a podcast going and talking on the phone, and it just feels like people are in the house, you know? The stations I listen to are WBGO which is a jazz station out of Newark, Hot97. I'm also a musician. I play drums and percussion, so I practice in this space a lot and that usually gets inspired by what’s on the radio. The show I just had at Charles Moffet in December, that body of work is really aligned with Jay Electronica’s most recent album. It’s called A Written Testimony. Jay’s somebody who I enjoy the way he writes about faith, still with a very braggadocious hiphop energy, but he talks about his relationship with God, his relationship with things and people. I feel like I’m doing that in the work. That body of work was really about me understanding myself as multi-faith.
How does that exploration come out in your work?
To be a musician, you have to listen, so I think one of the most important things is maintaining a kind of presence where you’re not thinking too ahead of yourself. I think the way I apply material and the way I build it formally is connected to the way I practice when I play drums, which is really finding a way to listen to things and channel things and respond as I’m working on something in real time.
Is there somewhere outside of your workplace you travel to often?
Yeah, I’ve got secret walks that I go on.
Yeah, I always have. Even starting in middle school, I’d find a way to take a long walk to a certain place and get lost. Actually get stuck for a couple of hours in an overpass by the highway, things like that. The time of day, too. I really love being outside right before the sun comes up, before the street lamps come up. That’s the perfect secret time, I think.
What’s the last spontaneous thing you did?
I started working out. That felt spontaneous.
Was that pandemic-driven?
It was like the Capitol getting rushed that did it. After they stormed the Capitol, I thought, “What if they storm my studio building? What if these crazy motherfuckers were just going to all these places where they knew brown people were there and were going to drag us out into the streets?” So, I kicked into high gear and got this trainer I’ve been working with four days a week since January. It’s changed my life. It’s changed the way I think about my physical health, but also my mental health, which I started to develop a practice with maybe six months before that. But then I started seeing the results in my work and the way I was in my studio, the way I practice music where I have this discipline that I just didn’t have before.
So, it helped you create more structure for yourself maybe?
Yeah, more structure. And also just give myself a chance to not just go home and sleep and come to the studio and work. I need to live a life outside of my studio in order for the studio to have a life. I think R.B. Kitaj, a Jewish-American artist, wrote this manifesto. He was like, “Painting is not my life. My life is my life.” I remember that because without having a life outside of the studio, what am I going to make?
Is there something you thought you knew or understood when you were younger that’s only started to make sense more recently?
My mom. I think the pandemic has also been a chance to look at old pictures and reflect on things in a very different way. My mom has these pictures of her when she was a kid and I was looking through them and I asked her how old she was. And she had never been asked that. Once she remembered that, she remembered all these stories around these pictures that made me realize, “Oh, I get the way I remember from you. I get the way I understand things and objects and cues and, literally, debris from you.” Now, she’s just eager all the time to talk about her being a kid. In my mind, she feels safer. We grew up really poor in a house of five people and my dad was an alcoholic, a very kind person and never abusive, but we were always broke. She feels a lot more comfortable now. It feels really great to see her reconnect with an identity that’s outside of survival.
What’s something you used to care about that you don’t care about anymore?
The way that I dress. I focused so much on presenting a certain way, whether that was hyper-masculine or super hip-hop. Now, I have much more fun with how I dress, whereas before I was so stressed out and so anxious about it. I’ve been on this kick where I’m buying Uniqlo women’s dresses to wear as really great long shirts. I’ve been buying them, whereas five years ago, never.
What made that switch for you?
It’s funny, the sweater I’m wearing right now. It’s this kind of long mom sweater that goes to the knees. It has these raglan sleeves, which for me and my shoulders just makes sense. I bought it and I was so hesitant. I had it in my drawer for two months before I wore it. I was like, “I don’t want people to ask questions.” And then I just wore it and from then on I was like, “Nobody cares.” Or if they do care, then that’s even better because if they care, then they care! There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Are you superstitious about anything?
I grew up with an Afro-Dominican faith in my household so it was rooted in reading cards and if your boss is acting up you write his name and put it in your right shoe and you step on it while you’re talking to him. Superstition is such a small word to describe the levels.
What are some things you collect?
I feel like paper is the biggest collection I have. I like collecting paper from old books, old record sleeves, anything that gets discarded like that. It started with my mother’s wedding album. She threw it away because she wanted the pictures in a binder that wasn’t falling apart, and I went and found it in the garbage.
Do you have any habits you’re trying to break?
I think there are obvious ones as far as health. But I think one of the habits I’m trying to break, in the studio at least, is overworking. Making sure I don’t measure my success based on how many hours I spend in the studio and more like how many hours do I spend accumulating experience. I live across the street from my studio, so the comfort of just going back and forth. The homebody habit is something I’m trying to break.
What’s the first thing you tend to notice when you walk into a room?
Shoes. I don’t know where that’s from. I always look down at everyone’s shoes. I’m a really shy person so I feel like looking at shoes gives me a chance to not have to look at your face just yet and still be like, “Hey, what’s up?” just walking in.
What internet rabbit holes have you gone down lately?
Definitely boxing drill rabbit holes. I’ve always wanted to box and I think, rightly so, my mother’s always been afraid. And I shouldn’t have boxed as a kid. I was very gentle, I was a little chubby nerd. My mother’s always loved boxing and I feel like boxing is always something I’ve always liked because I liked the idea of being able to defend myself.
What do you do when you’re feeling stuck?
I usually play music. Recently, what I’ve been doing is going on Clubhouse and just playing. I’ll be there by myself for at least an hour and then someone shows up, someone leaves. I feel it’s a challenging space to spend practicing because it’s kind of performing, kinda not. But it also gives me a sense of urgency that I’m remaining disciplined.
Is there something you’d want to start over again?
There are huge things, like my relationships with my siblings. We have certain traumas and experiences and then we reconnect as our better selves, but now we’re shy with each other. It’s really strange. We’re shy around each other, and I feel like that’s something that has been changing and becoming a lot better. We’re re-introducing ourselves to each other in a way and being a lot kinder to each other.