Memento Mori: Rocko Rupert

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Memento Mori: [Latin] – Remember That You Too Will Die

An expression that reflects the transient nature of life and the futility of our earthly vanities. Cultures around the world have embraced the idea. Despite the seemingly bleak interpretation, the phrase is also meant with a wry gallows humor.

These themes motivate Revival Attempt #1, a new art show at 3rd Ethos Gallery. The artist, who goes by the nome d’arte Rocko Rupert, is soft-spoken and thoughtful, employing layers of conceptual philosophies into his art. Fitting with the motif, Revival Attempt #1 opened on Dia de los Muertos.

As the 3rd Ethos crew set up for the opening, Rupert and I sat in the back patio and spoke about his art.

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Rocko Rupert

Art Language

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“This is your language; you have to speak it well. … You just start playing around with color, until it solidifies into a voice.”

To Rupert, his art is a language in itself, one he’s spent his whole life learning. Born in Upstate New York but raised in Columbus, Ohio, Rupert comes from a family of artists.

His father is a painter while his maternal grandmother was also an art teacher. Though his parents were never married, both sides of the family have always been supportive of his creative endeavors.

“It was awesome having a supportive family. There’d be clay, or other materials, laying around. I messed around with a bunch of different materials. … Positive reinforcement and loving what I do and having people understand this little language that I’m talking… that’s what made me an artist.”

As a teenager, Rupert worked at an amusement park, painting caricatures for tourists. “I hated doing that, but it developed a style. From there I started airbrushing t-shirts.” Soon he became proficient with an airbrush, and learned to translate those techniques to spray cans.

“Once you learn the principles of can control… it gets easier.”

For college, Rupert attended SVA in New York and got a BFA in illustration.

“Immediately after graduating, I was like ‘I’m not into the world of commercial art.’”

Instead Rupert chose to work other jobs and pursue his own art on the side. After graduating in 2013, Rupert moved to San Francisco, where he worked at Mirus Gallery.

Styles & Influences

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While managing Mirus Gallery in SanFran, Rupert took an interest in street art. The murals around the city, particularly in the Mission district, shaped his own views. Although not a street artist himself, the style made a strong impression on his aesthetic.

Rupert began researching illustrators who had translated some of their work into street art, such as James Jean and David Choe. While living in Mission [SF’s Bushwick equivalent] he also began to take a lot of influence from the prominent Mexican styles around town.

Mirus featured a roster of art that Rupert described as a mix of “pop, psychedelic, and surrealists.” Rupert had the opportunity to meet artists like Damon Soule and Mars_1. It was at one of the Mirus Gallery openings he met his future wife.

Rupert’s wife is Mexican, and she helped shape his creative vision. In many ways, Mexican art began to play into his creative journey. Rupert got involved with an art collective in Mexico City and through them, he got the opportunity to paint a mural at the Corona Capital music festival in Mexico City. He was painting right in front of The Pixies stage. He considers it one of the highlights of his career.

However, while he was in Mexico painting, his grandmother passed away. Rupert took this as a sign.

“I thought; This must mean something.”

Rupert decided to continue working with a street art aesthetic.

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Revival Attempt #1

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For Rupert’s show, Revival Attempt #1, many of these influences can be seen. However, a trademark of his own style is the strong use of esoteric symbology. Experimenting with stencils, masking tape, and spray paint, Rupert creates something wholly original.  Combining traditional, such as still life, with animal imagery, Rupert explore themes of Memento Mori.

One the paintings features cherry blossoms from Kyoto and a coyote. In Japan, cherry blossoms are a symbol of the fragility of life, with the flower symbolizing “the beauty of a short lived life.” The coyote idea comes from an animal totem Rupert was given. It is a symbol of “humor in the face of darkness.” By contrasting the cherry blossoms with the coyote, Rupert mixes dark and light emblems.

Growing up, Rupert’s family owned several Dobermans. Rupert watched the lifespan of 3 Dobermans, from puppy to death. This affected him profoundly. To see the entire life of animal made Rupert realize the grim truths of the world. Still, Rupert loves Doberman’s for their sweet disposition, and painted a portrait in their honor/

Another a prominent aspect of the show is the pull between masculine and feminine symbols. This is apparent in his piece, ‘Pink Freud.’ Freud, known for his controversial theories of psychology, such as the idea of ‘oral fixation,’ is depicted against a pink backdrop.

Several animals play a major role in the show. Growing up in Ohio, Rupert witnessed his home state’s adverse relationship with animals and nature. Ohio has laws allowing for the import and sale of exotic animals. This was front page news several years ago when a private zoo led to a break out from the animal enclosure. Similarly, Ohio was the place of the infamous Harambe shooting. By incorporating gorillas and rain forest creatures in his work, Rupert explores the tense relationship that sometimes exist between man and nature.

By painting vases, ashes, and urns with faces, Rupert seeks balance.

“The quirky nature of making a vase with a face, gives it a little bit of humor. I try to balance everything out with a little bit of humor.”

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Rocko Rupert

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For Rupert, his art is a reflection his own personal transformations. In 2016, he had a solo show in Berlin, titled ‘Fission.’ Influenced by the American presidential campaign, the work focused around division and fusion. Though he was not always the most politically motivated, by seeing his country from afar, Rupert was forced to be more politically conscious.

For him, watching the Dakota Pipeline Protests and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of then-candidate Trump, Rupert explored his own sense of being. The issues that motivate him most are immigration and environmental concerns. In the Berlin show, he used the symbol of the Sun to investigate how fission and division can be manifested in a positive way.

“Completely shutting out another culture, leaves both cultures lacking.”

With Revival Attempt #1, Rupert furthers this exploration. While the Trump-era has led to an explosion of political art, Rupert’s work presents a nuanced vision of the politics of the self.

Rupert’s hopes through his imagery he can make art more accessible. Art is a universal language, and just because someone doesn’t have a degree, doesn’t mean that they should be shut out from the conversation. This is why he incorporates elements of street art.

“Good art shouldn’t be exclusive.”

In terms of how he views himself artistically, Rupert gave a wry shrug.

“I can only call myself something based on what I’m influenced by.”

His work transcends easy labels. However, his use esoteric symbology carries traditions of neo-pop surrealism.

Revival Attempt #1 is the culmination of many hours of painting and exploration, of art history and of the self. The show leaves one with a gentle reminder:

“Memento Mori: Remember That You Too Will Die”

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Written by T.K. Mills

Photos provided by T.K. Mills

For more by the author, check out his website tkmills.com

To learn more about Rocko Rupert, check out his website.

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Rocko Rupert

3rd Ethos Gallery

T.K. Mills

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