I first became aware of Rohitash Rao's art at one of the ArtBlocks, and wondered what the story might be behind the witty paintings done on found objects, or as Rao himself calls it, "trash". I'm always drawn to art with words in it, and Rao's words do not disappoint. We chatted at the most recent ArtBlock and made a plan to sit down and find out just what his story is. We did, and now I know. It goes like this ...
Rao was born in India, and moved with his family to Rancho Cucamonga at the age of two. His father was a glass blower and had found work in the Inland Empire, where everyone was an immigrant, because the town of Rancho Cucamonga was brand new. No one was from there, because it had never existed before, creating equal footing for everyone. Everything was a first ... the first time a wall had been tagged, the first time someone put a ramp in a backyard, it was all new, like the subdivision in E.T., and Rao says, "That was how I grew up, and it was great."
Rao told me that all of his art is informed by that place and time, with popular culture and music from that era figuring prominently in his work. Rao had always been painting and drawing from a young age, and one way that he made friends in school was that he was the guy who could do awesome lettering, like the exact AC/DC or KISS logo, and other kids would hit him up to decorate their folders. This started a lifelong interest in typography, which remains evident in his work.
It came time for college and Rao's mother was dead set on him being a scientist like she was herself. He went to San Jose to study chemistry, and confesses that he was "the worst student ever", flunking out of everything, just because he didn't like it. He went home and told his parents he needed to find an art school, and soon he was on his way at the Art Center in Pasadena. As he wanted to "Do it all", advisors recommended that he study advertising, because it covered so much, and honed his design sense and writing skills.
Years in the advertising biz followed, with a move to New York City. The writing skills paid off, and together with his partner, Peter Nelson, Rao got a book deal for a series of children's books, including Herbert's Wormhole and Creature Keepers. The books are an obvious hit, as Rao has fan letters and drawings from kids stacked on his table, and it's great. Rao illustrated the books as well, and always kept painting to keep in shape for the drawing. Painting soon became as important to him as the illustration, so he was kept very busy, as there were also readings for kids, a new series of animated shorts for Comedy Central called Anua Jiram (marijuana backwards) that were for adults - the total opposite of the kids' books. For balance. There was also a pilot for Fox called Rancho Cucamonga, produced by Lorne Michaels, that didn't wind up getting picked up ... yet.
With all that going on, and with Rao's writing partner, Nelson, living in L.A., Rao decided to make the move back to California. "Of all the parts of L.A. I like, for me it was always Venice," explained Rao. "It was just pure bliss. The light is the most obvious thing. Painting with natural light is the best thing, and I can open the doors to the studio and spray paint outside in the fresh air, and it's Heaven." His studio on Electric Avenue is a sun and art-filled space, teeming with creativity. "I've never been more productive. Abbot Kinney is right there, and has everything you could want. It helps my work to have everything nearby." Like he can just zip out for lunch or coffee or whatever, and return right back to work, without taking half the day to drive and park and all that. Perfecto.
"When I was in New York, I would think of Venice as one of the nicest places in L.A. Like at a 4-way stop, all the Venice people are telling you to go. In Santa Monica, maybe one person would wave you ahead. In Hollywood, zero would. People are nicer here, and look out for each other more. Drivers look out for bikers and skaters, because cars here KNOW this is your town," Rao said, pretty truthfully, at least for now.
Talking more about his art, Rao said that his idea of painting on trash began in junior high, mainly as a cost reason for cheap materials, but it quickly became a mimic of our culture. "I'm painting about our culture on the stuff that our culture throws away, to show how ridiculous it all is," Rao told me to better define his methods. "I do it too, but I'm aware of it, and I'm calling it out as ridiculous." Rao takes the words and images of Pop culture and mixes it together in a blender, like the painting of a weed leaf made up of the lyrics from the Cheers theme song.
Rao doesn't suffer from needing materials, as with all of the construction on and near Abbot Kinney, there is trash and detritus everywhere, just waiting to be discovered on his walks down the alley between his studio and the boulevard ... "I don't even have to try." Friends and neighbors also now know, and will drop off things they find for him to paint on, from big pieces of wood to paper drink cups. The "Trash Talk" paintings on cups began when Rao started a blog called "Art For A Beer" while in New York (for which he did a painting a day for 100 days). He would go to a bar and do a painting "of stuff I've heard on the streets" on a cup in exchange for a beer. There would be 20 or 30 people waiting to buy him a beer, which you can't really physically do, so after a few beers, they would start giving him cash, and thus, he began selling a bunch of paintings. That's pretty cool, right?
The paintings are all super clever, and all have a point to make. "When he finally looked up from his phone he discovered that everyone in the world was dead" is pretty dark, but also a zinger to those kinds of people. Rao often juxtaposes different areas of Pop culture, say a Snoopy character with a Radiohead lyric. I think my favorite one at the moment is one of a little plane in a night sky that draws you close to read the small print, "Oh, Stewardess, I speak jive." From Airplane, of course. I love it.
Another favorite - clearly - is the one Rao did when Prince died, and posted right when it had been 7 hours and 13 days since he had passed away. Lovely.
Rao is always up to the minute, and just completed one in honor of Muhammad Ali ...
And, as most down Venetians are, Rao is also feeling the Bern.
There is a whole installation of small paintings of people with the caption "These are all of the people you ignored today because you were too busy looking down at your phone" Thought provoking, and this is one that Rao is looking for a wall to recreate it as a big mural. It would be perfect right in the middle of Abbot Kinney somewhere, so if you have a wall to fill, please contact Rao and make it cool. And make a statement.
Another pointed series is the Kool-Aid packets Rao has altered to tweak the noses of targets such as climate change deniers and the ridiculousness of a Trump campaign or anyone who would support it. Drinking the Kool-Aid ...
"Venice is an artist's community. It's why I was drawn here, and why other artists are drawn here. It's not the weather, it's the creative community, that supports each other. Music, painting, technology, writing, it's all why we're all here together in this creative pocket. And we need to protect that," Rao said, with conviction. That is why he and the other members of the ArtBlock created that special day, to support each other and be the (old) Sundance art event, vs. the corporate affair that the annual Art Walk has become (though proceeds go to Venice Family Clinic - still.). They all teamed up together to make it happen, all in it together. "We all paid for the buses, the banners, everything ourselves," Rao said, and he added the great tag line to the mix (shades of his old ad agency days), "See Artists In Their Natural Habitat." Grassroots style, and one of the best art events Venice has. Power to the People!
Rao recently had his first solo show at the Fathom Gallery in Downtown L.A. which was a smashing success, to be followed by his first New York solo show next month (July 23) at Kustera Projects in Red Hook. With another Creature Keepers volume coming out this fall, and directing video content for various outlets, Rao is constantly busy, but always manages to find the time to keep painting.
Rohitash Rao is making treasures out of trash, and he is making social commentary with wit and intelligence ... all of which is just about as Venice as you can be. We're lucky to have him.
Visit Rao's world at Rohitashraopaintsontrash.com