"Biophilia" by Joseph Renda Jr. at Vertical Gallery | Chicago
“Our connection to flora and fauna goes back thousands of years. We keep this relationship alive in our modern era by doing things like adding greenery to our homes and domesticating animals. Things that we do not typically need to survive any more but are compelled to do" - Joseph Renda Jr.
Walking into the world of “Biophilia” by artist Joseph Renda Jr. felt like entering an immersive nature experience. The eyes take in the clear blue skies, the vigorous ocean waves, and the flourishing green vines and leaves with veins so vivid you could almost feel it between your fingertips. After months of shuttered doors for society due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this showcase felt like a breath of fresh air, literally. Joe's first solo show “Biophilia” transformed Vertical Gallery into a lush natural world with 32 paintings and drawings.
("Looking Through" and "Reaching Out")
The show opened June 6th as a virtual 3D exhibit but was able to be seen in person, following health and safety guidelines, for the final two weeks until June 27th. This is the first time Vertical Gallery has been able to reopen its doors to the public since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic a few months ago. Major love was shown by the public and the show completely sold out. I had the opportunity to interview Joe about his first solo show “Biophilia,” his appreciation for nature, and more.
("Don’t Let Me Drown" and "Forged Through Years of Rough Waters")
Originally, pursuing a career as an artist wasn’t something that crossed Joe’s mind. His high school art teachers, however, saw his natural talent and encouraged him. “They pushed me to create and my first painting won the Congressional Art Competition,” said Joe, “It hung in Washington DC and is what sparked my interest to explore art in the future.” After that, he applied to The American Academy of Art and was accepted, “…from there on I dedicated my time and effort into learning how to draw and paint,” said Joe who graduated with a BFA in oil painting in 2018.
While studying, Joe connected with the local art scene including doing sold-out group shows with friends like Sergio Fanfar. Joe’s dedication led to being asked by Patrick Hull, the owner of Vertical Gallery, to assist Dutch artist Collin van der Sluijs on his “Bloom to Doom” mural located at 1006 South Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. “This was my first mural and the experience became a huge turning point in my career,” said Joe, “It got my foot in the door and piqued my interest in pursuing murals of my own.”
("Growth for a Better Day" photo courtesy of Kyle Lily)
This year he created a mural for Murals for Medical Relief, a collaborative fundraiser by Muros, an art activation agency, and VINCO, a media production company, raising money for COVID-19 relief funds for local hospitals such as Northwestern Memorial, Rush University Medical Center, and Cook County Health.
Joe’s mural, “Growth for a Better Day,” looks toward the future with passion, gratitude, and strength; located at Chilango Mexican Street Food at 1437 West Taylor Street.
GXM: Can you discuss your connection to nature?
JR: I have always felt a deep connection to nature. My earliest memories are of my grandparents' wooded backyard and the adventures we would take. There is something about being surrounded by nature that makes me feel at ease and where my best ideas come from.
Our connection to flora and fauna goes back thousands of years. We keep this relationship alive in our modern era by doing things like adding greenery to our homes and domesticating animals. Things that we do not typically need to survive any more but are compelled to do. Living in the city it is hard to have that connection, but I try to take a trip every year to hike or visit the local forest preserve when I can.
GXM: How did this show/concept come together? Can you also talk about the exhibition catalog produced for the show available for purchase?
JR: When I graduated from the Academy I felt lost. I spent 4 years learning techniques and concepts and felt like I had the necessary skills to make something great but did not know what to create. I spent a year experimenting with different styles while looking back at previous paintings to see what stood out. What I discovered is that at its core my work embodies the connection between humanity and nature.
Using this as a starting point I came across the term “biophilia” coined by Edward O. Wilson. Biophilia is described as a human's innate tendency to seek a connection to the natural world. I wanted the theme of the show to speak to this connection and conservation necessary to keep it thriving for years to come.
("On Look Out")
I created an exhibit book to document my first ever solo exhibit in one place. It showcases almost all the work from the show along with some studio shots and murals. I wanted something that was low priced that anyone can purchase and take home as a momentum. I have collected gallery cards and show books since I started, and it always brings me back to that moment when I look at them.
GXM: What is a memorable nature experience that left you in awe?
JR: The moment that I realized I wanted my work to really be about our connection to nature, which happened in the Rocky Mountain National Park. We were surrounded by aspen trees on a hike and I had this odd feeling of being watched. We view and immerse ourselves in nature to take in its beauty, but if we pay close attention nature is looking back at as too.
The knots in the trees were strikingly similar to the shape of a human eye and is what sparked the piece in my show and a large mural as well. I just started work for my solo around this time and that experience became what inspired it all.
GXM: What are some of your favorite pieces from the show? And can you discuss the story behind them?
JR: If I had to pick two paintings from the show It would have to be “The Lovers” and “Worship”. “The Lovers” was inspired by Rene Magritte’s “The Lovers II”, 1928, and was composed on the same scale. This was one of the most fun and interesting processes for a painting so far. I shoot my own reference photos when I can. My girlfriend assisted me as I took artificial vines and wrapped it around our heads.
( "The Lovers")
This was a process since I could not see well and had to keep running back and forth to the camera. But, when I saw the photo I knew this was going to be one of my favorites. Magritte’s “The Lovers II” was about isolation and the inability to unveil the true nature of intimacy, whereas my piece is about our connection through nature and the blending of two people in a loving embrace.
The inspiration for “Worship” comes from two sources. About a year ago we got backyard chickens and they have been awesome and interesting pets. I was listening to the BBC Earth podcast about “rituals'' in the animal kingdom and how we tend to portray animal acts as humanistic when we do not truly know if they are.
An example was a story about a herd of elephants that had buried one of their dead and visited the gravesite year after year. We can look at this and say they are grieving and showing a very human trait of empathy. I started to think about our chickens and learned that even though hens lay typically every day, they do not know if their egg is fertile but will care for it the same.
For a species to survive it must reproduce and protect its young so they can go on to do the same. We are not so different from the animals we share our planet with. I wanted this painting depicting a giant floating egg and a group of chickens circling its shadow to feel like a ritual and give them a humanistic quality.
GXM: Can you go into the theme or inspiration behind a few pieces: “Looking Forward” and “A Place Called Home”?
JR: These two paintings have a similar meaning. One is of my little brother and the other is my friend’s daughter.
("A Place Called Home")
Both are looking away from the viewer to seem nondescript and to represent any child. My friend’s daughter sits on the stump hugging a birdhouse seemingly made of the woodcut from the tree, with a sparrow perched looking in her direction.
My 10-year-old brother stands on top of the stump with sticks in his hands, plants growing from his body, and a bird’s nest placed on his head as an egg floats above it. My brother and I share a significant age gap of 14 years and watching him grow up in this world can be rather scary. These pieces are about protection and how we need to make conscious decisions in our lives to ensure the next generation can thrive.
GXM: You’ve mentioned that your favorite surrealism artists are Salvador Dali and René Magritte; What aspects of surrealism and the school of thought behind it draw you in?
JR: The Surrealists, especially Dali and Magritte, have been a key source of inspiration for me since the beginning. Something about their extremely technical execution juxtaposed with dreamlike imagery has always caught my attention.
Learning how to draw and paint well was my goal and I wanted to create work that could be considered “surreal” without being too obvious. I paint rather realistic and want my audience to feel like what they are viewing could be possible but to question what they are truly seeing. This observation leads to a search for deeper more personal meaning beyond the surface. I feel this is my first body of work that I implement both the historical inspirations with a unique twist of my own.
GXM: Your show, planned in advance, came during an interesting time for humanity as COVID-19 has taken over this year; how do you think the concept behind your show relates to what’s going on the pandemic?
JR: I was asked a year ago to create this body of work and could never have imagined my first solo exhibit of my career would be happening during these surreal times. We were fortunate to have released the show digitally for the first two weeks and then allow people to physically experience it in the gallery for the last two weeks.
It is very important to me that people see how much I put into every piece and to feel immersed in this world I have created. There is only so much you can get from a post on Instagram or my website and a lot of detail tends to get lost. In a time of distance and isolation, I strived to have my work to unite us through our intimate love and deep connection to the natural world. I wanted people’s first time back out into society to be something that they could feel a part of in some way.
GXM: What’s in the works next for you?
JR: I have some fun things planned and coming up soon! My next exhibit is Vertical Gallery’s five artist group show this December for Scope Miami. I am really excited about my new body of work and will have about 15 new pieces on display. I have a few things lined up for 2021 as well and am planning to push myself a bit more with murals. I am simply happy that I get to wake up every day and do what I absolutely love!
Thanks to Joe for his time!