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Q&A with Jorge Rios

Born in Havana, Cuba, Jorge Rios holds a BA in Painting from the National Academy of Arts “San Alejandro.” In 2021 he earned a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rios’ work transcends the flatness of ordinary visual language, reaching the subtlety, ambivalence, and complexity that we perceive more clearly in other art forms such as music or poetry.


Jorge Rios Azul, Amarillo, Rojo, 2023 Watercolor and acrylic marker on Arches paper mounted on wood
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Jorge Rios in his studio (Photo: Caitlin Custer)

Tell us about your thesis project.
My thesis project is really an exploration of painting itself. I’m working in watercolors and acrylic markers on paper, which is then mounted on plywood panels.

When did you start painting?
I’ve been painting my whole life. I started as a child in an art education program. It wasn’t really a conscious choice to make art a career, it was my default mode of existence.

I was born and raised in Cuba. The first time I came to the United States — I have family in Miami — I decided I wanted to pursue a career here. When I was applying to graduate schools, I visited the Sam Fox School and kind of fell in love with the space. I had a great connection with Lisa Bulawsky ,professor and chair, MFA in Visual Art. We had meaningful conversations about the work I was doing, and I knew it was a good decision to come here.

When I’m painting, feelings come in waves. There’s a lot of struggle, peaks and valleys, realization and joy.

How does this connect with your previous work?
This work is a bit of a detour from what I’ve been doing previously. I created a body of work during the last year and a half at WashU that consisted largely of oil on canvas or cow hide. I consider this project as another step in experimentation and research. That’s the premise of everything visual artists do — you never master anything, you’re always reinventing yourself. So that’s the road I wanted to follow.

What is your creative process like?
This is a work that is very formal, very process-based. I’ve been attracted to watercolor for a long time and was using it a lot prior to WashU. Watercolor is a very different mindset, different aesthetic, different feeling. The luminosity of the color is very important to me. The purity of the pigments and the way it works with the light of the paper speaks to what, for me, a painting should do in a very existential way.

There’s an idea of ambiguity and uncertainty, but it’s primarily an abstract experience of color and forms in space, very similar to music.

Rios in his studio (Photo: Caitlin Custer)

How do you think about what a painting should or could be?
For me, a painting should be a double condition. In my mind, it should be a surface and a portal at the same time. That’s what can make painters kind of superficial but profound at the same time — it’s this awareness of its own artificiality. That’s what makes it relevant and different from other disciplines.

What do you hope someone experiences when they view your work?
When someone sees it, I hope they feel pleasure, just pure aesthetic pleasure. And also, a little bit of interrogation. A little bit of, “what is this?”

The work is directed to painters in the way it’s constructed. It’s inspired by the way I interact with painting as a painter. I’m very attracted to a painting that resists revealing its process, how it was made. Most of the time, you are able to figure it out. But I like the resistance. And if there’s any humor in that, it’s a plus.

Jorge Rios reflected on the scope of his practice, thesis project, and time at WashU leading up to the MFA in Visual Art thesis exhibition. This is an edited transcript of Rios’ words as told to Caitlin Custer.