by Anne Leith
René Moncada’s exhibition at the Jane St. Art Center beautifully presents some of his best-known artworks. These include videos of his performance art, such as: footage and images of his series I AM THE BEST ARTIST René murals; his ecological performances since 1972 in Venezuela educating the public of the dangers of contaminating the environment; the sculptures of knotted string woven on live models which he identifies as living sculptures; and fascinating sculptures created with Styrofoam and found objects. Much of his work is controversial and still provokes outcry from a wide range of critics. One such work presents a female figure entitled “Miss Construed.”
René arrived in NYC in the early 1970s, where he began a lifelong relationship with his wife Joanne. With her help he focused on his art and was on his way, exploring and experimenting with challenging ideas and materials.
One such work is I AM THE BEST ARTIST René, a huge street mural painted on a 50’ long wall at street level in Soho from the 1970s – 1990s. This was not a static piece. It was tagged over repeatedly by other artists and then repainted over and over by him, a constantly evolving artwork, a constant performance piece. Jane St. Art Center has on display videos and photos of him working on this wall, a fascinating look at an artist in action, engaging with his peers (often hostile to his unabashed declaration of self-worth).
While this remains his signature work, another major theme in his art is his philosophy which claims that women are Nature’s Paragon, which he explains by saying “There is nothing more powerful than that upon which every woman sits; this is indeed the seat of power.” The female vulva and labia are the foundational concept to express his world view and his struggle against censorship in art.
The essence of his work is his respect for, and love of women, and female sexual images are everywhere: discovered in a Mott’s Apple Juice label (later changed by the company!); in beautifully carved wood bas-relief; in his signature drawings of the goddess/woman in flowing labia robes; and in natural shapes like caves. These elegant drawings of forms emerging in space have a delicacy and sensitivity that deny any outside criticism of vulgarity. His daily practice of making these drawings create a quintessential record of how ‘woman as muse’ is central to his art. He has self-named these vulvic forms ‘Renés’. Perhaps unexpectedly, once you have ‘explored’ his way of seeing it is hard not to think of them as a ‘René’.
The performative aspect of René’s work is central to his practice. In one performance series, he knots haute couture string dresses on women’s nude bodies, turning them into elegant living sculptures. The photo documentation of the performance then becomes its own work of art, equally challenging and stimulating.
Moncada’s use of found materials goes back to the 1970s. The string used in his body art and the plastics and metals in his sculpture are all recycled materials. Rock forms made from Styrofoam, a material that has become an ecological dilemma, are hand painted naturalistically and heaped in massive piles or tied in found plastic chains, painted to resemble metal. He also creates ’high art’ sculptures using these ‘low art’ materials, painted to resemble bronze and rock with a dazzling deceptive reality. The rocks resemble the natural formations treasured by the Chinese people called Scholar or Spiritual Rocks, adding another level of interest.
Perhaps his finest work though is his life story, as seen told in video interviews. For example, he was brought to the United States in 1964 to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. In NYC he worked as an art director and illustrator for ‘gentlemen’s’ magazines. In his own unique and highly entertaining way he tells of the women he has met and loved throughout his life and the art that ensued. His sense of humor and his unabashed passion for women’s rights and their essential power shines throughout his work.
Also available at the Jane St. Art Center are the following books:
- RENÉ – I AM THE BEST ARTIST, NATURE’S AMASSADOR
- DON ONE – THE FIRST ONE – THE LAST ONE – THE ONLY ONE: SAGA OF AN ESTROGEN ADDICT AND THE WOMEN HE MANAGED TO DEBRIEF