The Black Prince and his devil
By Pierre Restany
We call him the Black Prince because of the color of his garments, an exclusive preference he shares, among others, with his friend Andy Warhol, and which permits us, within remote memory, to associate him with another legendary figure: Edward It’s son, noble among nobles, brave among England’s bravest who defeated John the Good in Maupertuis near Poitiers.
That event took place in 1356 and we are now in 1986. The great deeds of knighthood have evolved in form, but not in essence. Rolando Peña, The Black Prince, obeys his own code of honor, which he has beaten into form as if it were existential armour permitting him to cross de hazards of an intense life between his native city Caracas, and New York, the scene of his many tournaments. At 44 he is a fulfilled man who has been in contact with everything. Since the start of his career he has wandered through art, theatre, T.V., cinema and even dance, which he practiced in the Venezuelan National Ballet, and also in the prestigious dance companies of Martha Graham, Alvin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham. He has experimented with all de forms of corporal expression from the “psychedelic show”, and the “street happening” to numerous multi-media performances. He took to the theatre, the performance The Illumination of Buda with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary; he participated in several Andy Warhol films of 1967 and some more recent woks. He introduced himself in the fetishism of “Santeria” (a kind of witchcraft) uselessly searching to detach formally from his own impersonation. Where is the code for this turbulent life? He is a man who does not admit any conventional separation between art and life. What really counts for him are the deep fixations, the structural columns of personality, the catalyst of the imaginary, the crest, the collar of the doublet, the chest protector, the armour for thighs and legs, and the articulation of this ancient armour as a whole.
His principal fixation is this country’s daily mythology which finds its fulfillment in oil: tho super symbol, supreme incarnation of a lovehate relationship. The Venezuelan Indians called crude oil “Mene”. Peña transforms it into an object of devotion, an object for multiple performances, many of which have taken place In New York. Through a beautiful test the artist describes his first vision of the Maracaibo Lake, as that of a landscape where the drilling towers and their apparatus, resemble an enormous graveyard.
Rolando Peña has carried this image of “Mene” through all his experiences, adventures, wagers and risks; this image has never abandoned him, not even in the depths of the obscure corners of his character. The Black Prince is the brave Knight of black gold and in this impersonation he refuses to be a Quixote defying the windmills of multinational companies. He prefers to be a man from the Renaissance. He is fanatically devoted to Leonardo. In 1979 mounted up a performance based on the theme of the seven vanishing points of perspective: the definitions of horizons viewed both in linear perspective and in relation to the distance. In his time, Gregory Battcock, praised this exaltation of humanism. Peña’s humanism found the perfect module for his ontological language: hi painted the oil barrel gold adding it up in columns aligned in space. There is something in this installation much like the temporal monument of Christo, the monogold of Ives Klein and the quantitative language of Arman. I can see in it a reference to the “new realism”, to the modern industrial: nature, to the humanist technology in its appropriation of that which is real. Farther than this global vision, which is the trace of a sensibility centered in the deep expressive structures of one consuming society, there is the only catalysis of language, the presence of the Black Prince.
In 1983 white I was in Caracas to assist to an AICA Congress I had the opportunity of getting close to Peña’s poetic system. He put me In front of an accumulation of gold barrels, which he called “Devil’s excrement”. Then I understood the use of the barrel as the modular element of his vocabulary. The oil barrel is the most important element of the distribution system of heavy oils and because of that, the most tangible, the one that says more to us. Deposits, a cistern, an oil duct, are abstract entities. One can pile barrels in the same way one piles gold pieces. It is at the same time the substance and the metaphor of richness. We can accuse “Mene” of all our troubles but the reality is that it is always there.
For Peña, as for the Maracaibo Indian, oil is in itself and for itself. It has become a part of Venezuelan beings for better or worse. We knew the price per barrel rose, and the role it plays today when prices have gone down. Abusive and excessive in its role... The Black gold has no fragrance like gold. We have to accept the immense monstrosity of its omnipresence in Venezuela, as we accept ice in the poles or sand in the desserts.
For us Europeans who only see in oil an energy source accessible because of our financial wealth, it is possible to realize its immanence. But for those to which oil is the burning blood of their own country, it is impossible to consider it thus. This is the best message of Rolando Peña: to maintain until paroxysms the sharp conscience of this presence as a condition sine qua non of being Venezuelan. Hate and love with “Mene”. I will always remember the image of Caracas, the Black Prince against his golden barrels. He called us to attention as if he were bargaining himself. Renaissance artists did the same in the face of the temporal and spiritual power of the cinquecento.
This technological humanism is as near to moral fact as magic to the exorcist. No doubt there is part of all this in the ideal code of Rolando Peña, in the hidden code of his existential compromise. The Italian artist Manzoni canned his own shit; both his shit and his gesture today seem of no harm. The post-dadaist content of those cans will never have the frightening power, both mysterious and poisonous of “Mene” which fills the golden barrels, because it is something else, it is “the devil’s excrement” and the Black Prince has proposed to himself, not to deal with the devil, with his own devil.
Art Critic - Philosopher