Garbage accumulates like repressed urges in Kenny Rivero’s show “I Can Love You Better,” where paintings with assemblage elements are installed alongside sculptures made from discarded debris. The former blends collage, Surrealism and folk art into cartoonish compositions, while the latter piles shards of glass, bits of broken records and scraps of paint into quasi-shamanistic objects. In both, art history is treated like a trash can to be picked through.
Rivero, a Yale MFA graduate, grew up on the mean streets of Washington Heights in the 1980s, and memories of life there provide a theater where psychologically charged narratives play out. In three large paintings, It Happened on the Corner, El Pique and The Fire Next Time (all from 2014), confrontations, beatings and fires dissipate into pictorial snippets. Sidewalks are transformed into sacrificial altars, slabs on which figures are dismembered. But Rivero also employs a comic touch that blunts the impact of his images. He mixes body parts, architectural fragments, letters and numbers to create a playful confusion, complicating our relationship to urban brutality.
Evocations of violence within the aesthetic realm are nothing new; they informed the figurative mutations of early modern art. But Rivero understands that actual assault isn’t symbolic or a mere transgression of someone’s space: It can leave wounds that are mortal. Rivero links the shedding of blood on the pavement to the smearing of paint on canvas and in doing so seems to say: This is what humans do, whether they’re using pictures or weapons.—Jennifer Coates