The artist shows displays his work at the university's Korn Gallery.
The artist shows displays his work at the university’s Korn Gallery.

Omar Rodriguez-Graham C’02 is known for abstract, digital collages.

October 2017 – As an experiment for his master’s thesis at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Drew University alumnus Omar Rodriguez-Graham shut himself inside a “cube room” that was roughly 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet.

The space included a bunk, toilet, refrigerator and microwave. Isolated from outside stimuli, Rodriguez-Graham sought to better understand how paintings are conceived. His biggest takeaway? A keen appreciation for how quickly solitary confinement can scramble your mind.

“I spent a few days in there before I started to go crazy,” recalled Rodriguez-Graham, during a talk about his art at Drew. “I kind of felt I had failed miserably.”

It’s a revealing story, coming from a painter whose success stems largely from unconventional thinking and pushing against preconceived standards of what a painting should be.

Exhibits around the world

Now based in Mexico City, Rodriguez-Graham, C’02, is best known for abstract, digital collages, which he designs on a computer by distorting famous Baroque paintings. His work has been exhibited at galleries in Mexico, Europe, South America and the U.S., including Drew’s Korn Gallery, where he had a show this semester.

At Drew, Rodriguez-Graham reflected on his unique process and evolving career as an artist. His talk was made possible by support from the Traphagen Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series Endowment. Endowed by Trustee Emeritus Ross Traphagen, the series brings prominent alumni to campus to engage in discussion with students and other members of the Drew community.

In graduate school, it was the act of painting itself—more than any one style—that most interested Rodriguez-Graham, which explains how he wound up being shut inside a cube for two days. That experiment so disappointed him, however, that it soured him on pursuing a career as a painter.

The language of painting

Back home in Mexico City, though, he felt drawn to paint again. First, he focused on the dead bodies of victims of the city’s surging drug trafficking violence. Later on, he turned his attention to the corpses of bulls killed in arenas, horses and arrangements of geometric objects that he built himself. The common thread: a quest to explore “the language of painting.”

A turning point came when he incorporated his computer skills into his art, reasoning that even a brush is a type of technology.

Now 38, Rodriguez-Graham remains determined to keep smashing boundaries, as he experiments with irregularly shaped canvases and finding new ways to use technology to paint in what he describes as an “imaginary realm.”

“We can paint images beyond the canvas,” he noted, adding, “With my work, it’s hard to tell where it goes.”