Afonso Rocha is particularly interested in the tension between people and the process of representation; he constructs his art like a collage, layering images, references, and meanings to explore relationships, vulnerability, and the duality of human emotion. He provides a metaphorical stage where figures can interact freely, invoking a sense of discomfort or tension that prompts viewers to form their own interpretations.
Kelly Foster – If you were introducing your work to someone who had never seen it before, how would you describe the main themes or key elements?
Afonso Rocha – Well, my work primarily revolves around painting, even though that wasn’t my starting point. Painting has become the main medium that resonates with me. I also continuously explore other mediums, especially drawing and printmaking. My focus is on rethinking multiplicity, contemporaneity, and art history. My interest in art history, particularly the history of painting, actually initiated my journey. I try to create a bridge between historical meanings and contemporary interpretations, using images and themes from the past to rethink the present.
While my work is mostly figurative, and many people might describe it as narrative, I don’t see it that way. It’s more about the process than the narrative. My paintings take a long time to develop, not just in a practical sense, but also because I constantly modify them to include various elements. They are essentially a collage of different things that ultimately coalesce into a single entity. I never impose a narrative or specific meaning; instead, I let viewers form their own interpretations.
KF – I noticed right away that your work contains art historical references, particularly in the garden landscapes and communal settings. Could you talk about your depiction of the nude figure and sexuality? There seems to be an erotic undertone.
AR – Yes, exactly.
KF – Great. So are you referencing art history with the nude figures, or is there a deeper interest in linking it to contemporary times?
AR – I believe so. Historically, nudes have been very present, usually in an aesthetic manner to preserve certain values. I use nude figures in conjunction with clothed ones to create a sense of discomfort. This allows me to explore relationships between people of different genders and within groups, making it relevant to contemporary discussions.
For instance, the dynamic between a naked female figure and a clothed male is different than when both are nude or vice versa. These choices enable me to examine a wide range of relationships between characters. A few years ago, I came across the work of a painter whose art is both perverse and strong, reminiscent of Nabokov’s “Lolita.” It’s simultaneously unsettling and beautiful, and I’m interested in that dichotomy.
KF – So you’re creating a sense of taboo or tension?
AR – Yes, that’s correct.
KF – I find it interesting that we’ve been conditioned to see the female nude alongside a clothed male. Your paintings, which often feature a nude male and a clothed female, definitely jar our preconceptions. Are you deliberately challenging notions of gender roles, power, and sexuality, or would that be reading too much into it?
AR – Certainly, the idea of playing with gender roles is a theme in my work, but it’s not a one-way street. For instance, Paula Rego’s work has recently garnered attention because she portrayed the female figure in a manner typically associated with male poses and attitudes.
When I displayed my triptych featuring three male figures, the reception in Portugal was mixed. A female nude often becomes somewhat passive in the eyes of viewers due to its frequent depiction and association with traditional beauty. When the gender roles are reversed, however, the work becomes more provocative.
I think what makes my work interesting is its ambiguity. Over the last two years, my recent pieces often express duality. On one side, you have empathy, caring, and perhaps love. On the opposite side, you find elements like violence and vengeance. In all types of relationships—whether romantic, platonic, or familial—these contrasting elements coexist.
KF – So, if I understand correctly, your work explores the tension in relationships, and the nudity serves as a metaphor for that tension. Is that a fair summary?
AR – Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Unlike objects, people are never passive. A simple change in attire or the lack of it can radically alter the dynamic between figures in a painting. For instance, a nude male becomes more vulnerable than if he were clothed.
I prefer working on group scenes for my new series because they allow for a richer tapestry of relationships. It’s like a collage, both intellectually and pragmatically, layering images, references, and meaning.
KF – I like the idea of your work being a collage, especially as it seems to draw from both historical and contemporary elements. Can you also speak about the specific settings you choose? What role do landscapes and parks play, particularly in the context of modern times?
AR – First of all, my approach is likely to change a bit with my new work. I felt compelled to include objects, but it’s not just that. I was cautious about making the works seem like a parody of the past. I definitely didn’t want that. I was careful not to tie them too strongly to a specific era or time. I aimed to create metaphors that could speak to the present but could also belong to any era. Now, I want to anchor them more in the present, since our concerns are inherently tied to the now. But to be honest, I’m still figuring that out.
Regarding landscapes, initially, I focused on indoor spaces to emulate the intimate settings created by artists like Bacon or Freud. However, that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I began to use almost metaphysical backgrounds with minimalistic details. Eventually, I found that landscapes could add another layer to the work. Landscapes make the intimate feel exposed, which intrigued me. They also connect with art history, where you often see outdoor settings, like the Bacchanalia scenes. More importantly, landscapes allow me to expose the figures to a different environment where there are no rules.
KF – What I gather from this, especially after looking at your more recent works, is that these environments serve more like a stage. They aren’t specific places, but more like voids where the figures can interact freely.
AR – Exactly, you’ve articulated it better than I could. The setting influences the painting but could be any setting because its relevance is secondary. For instance, placing a nude figure in an outdoor space makes it a stage for interactions rather than a realistic scenario.
KF – Right. It also seems like you have a certain affinity for nature. I saw a photo of your studio from a year ago, and it was filled with paintings of lush trees and landscapes. Being from Portugal, does that influence your work?
AR – Well, during the pandemic, I had to return to Portugal during my studies in Paris. For that entire year, I focused on painting landscapes because there was nothing else to inspire me. I enjoyed using landscapes as a tool for creating images, finding it easier to manipulate than human figures. Until recently, these were two separate facets of my work: one more focused on landscapes, and the other more intellectual and figure-based. Realising that I could combine the two was a turning point for me.
KF – I really enjoy your use of colour, landscapes, and brushstrokes. They feel fresh and thick in a way. I can see how being isolated and in a specific environment during the pandemic has influenced your work. I’m curious about your figurative works, which seem to be a recurring focus. How do you decide how to collage these environments? Do you think of specific narratives or meanings, or are they borrowed from specific gestures? How do you construct the stories?
AR – That’s a bit tricky because it varies from one painting to another. Typically, I start with an idea, which can be based on something personal or something I’ve seen that bothered me. This becomes the igniting moment for the image. Initially, the ideas are very abstract. I bring together various elements like collected photographs, drawings, and even older and historical paintings. This past year, Instagram became very important to my practice. I follow many artists, especially painters, and it’s a great way to see millions of images daily. All these images influence my work, but the final piece often becomes its own story. At a certain point, I’m just painting; I’m just building the story, but it’s no longer my own.
KF – That’s fascinating how the work evolves out of your control. You’re not forcing an idea into the painting. I’m also interested in the people you depict. They seem to belong to a specific age or generation. How do you approach who to depict? Are they people from your life?
AR – It’s a mix. Most of the models are people I know, like friends of my brother or friends of friends. I like to get to know them before painting them, but as the painting progresses, I try to make them look less like themselves. I want the figure to be a metaphor for a certain type of people, or sometimes for no one in particular.
KF – I love that idea, creating placeholders with invented people. It adds tension because they feel so familiar. I also wanted to ask about the element of humour in your paintings. They seem to have playful or even taboo elements, like a cat or people having sex. Can you tell me more about that?
AR – Yes, I think there’s an element of that. I try to keep my paintings from being too serious by incorporating a bit of nonsense. Like the painting you mentioned with the girl petting the cat, it’s a bit nonsensical but it actually makes the rest look more serious.
So, in a sense, I think it adds a moral dimension to the images. I believe that in life, things are often both serious and humorous at the same time. For instance, the painting you were referring to, currently exhibited at Bankside Gallery, prompted people to laugh at the opening, and I found that very interesting. When you get people to laugh at something they perhaps shouldn’t, I think I’m achieving what I aim for.
KF – Yeah, laughter can serve various purposes. It’s not always because something is traditionally funny; it could be a way to release tension or discomfort. I think your work engages the viewer in a similar manner.
AR – Yes, it alleviates the tension.
KF – So, you’ve mentioned various influences like painters and books such as Lolita by Nabokov. Do other forms of storytelling or media like literature and films also influence your work?
AR – Absolutely, although I don’t usually incorporate an entire narrative. Sometimes, specific passages from books will spark an image that interests me. Initially, I wasn’t skilled at depicting figures from memory, so I turned to art books to find poses and expressions that could convey what I was imagining. Even when I became capable of drawing from imagination, I continued to explore this method because it felt meaningful to me. So if I read something that evokes a specific image in my mind, I try to recreate that image through other references.
KF – I see, that makes sense. It aligns with the collage-like element you’ve been discussing, like the process of translating an abstract concept from a book into a visual work.
AR – Exactly, it’s about reconstructing it. I think that’s an apt analogy for painting. For instance, when I start a new set of paintings, it’s much like when I read something in a book. I have a very clear idea, but it’s not set in stone. So, I have to choose references to bring the idea to life.
KF – So, would you say your primary interest lies in the tension between people, in relationships? Is it a psychological focus, or is there something else that mostly catches your interest?
AR – I’d say there are two main things. First is the tension between people, and second is the process of representation through existing elements. This is something everyone does, consciously or not. Through these two focal points, I aim to develop a relevant practice that is in tune with contemporary issues.
KF – It’s interesting how this relates to today’s society. Relationships between people, especially in Western society or cities like London, seem increasingly dislocated and isolated. It feels like there’s an awkwardness in human interactions, perhaps a generational aspect.
AR – Absolutely. We’re constantly in contact with a large number of people, more so now than a few decades ago. However, genuine conversations or connections are rare. For example, I remember how quiet and awkward people became when stepping into an elevator in London’s Tube stations, despite the stations being noisy and crowded. There’s a discomfort in being so physically close yet emotionally distant.
KF – I’ve thought about that too—these social norms dictate how we act in private and public spaces. It’s like we’re all strangers, yet sharing the same stage of life. It’s both isolating and confusing.
AR – Exactly. In my paintings, figures share the same stage but don’t necessarily know each other. Yet by simply being there, they form some kind of relationship, albeit not a personal one. I find that intriguing.
KF – I sometimes consider countering that sense of isolation by having faith in humanity. If something happens to me, maybe someone will step in to help. It’s really about your mindset.
AR – That’s true. It often just takes a trigger to initiate interaction among people. We’re all navigating our own paths, often trying hard to avoid intersecting with others. But the right triggers can bring those paths together. This aligns with what I aim to do in my work—I don’t consider myself a narrative painter. I force different elements into a situation and let them decide what their connections or tensions will be. I don’t necessarily know what they’re about, as they’re open to interpretation.
KF – Yeah, it feels like you’re engaged in a form of improvisation. You set up this stage and then say, “Okay, someone take these scissors, someone else take this bed and this cat,” and then see what unfolds. It’s a fascinating mix.