At twenty-eight years old, David Rodriguez was working eight hours a day, five days a week, selling biscuits. He’d come to France almost ten years before to study art, after having finished school in Colombia where he’d grown up. One fine art diploma, two master’s degrees, a marriage and a divorce later he was wondering exactly what he ought to do with his life; needing to pay the bills, he took up a job in a bar. After nine months of habitually drinking far too much he had to stop for what he describes as ‘health reasons’ and because it meant there were three days a week when he’d be too inebriated or hungover to make art. He found a sales job in the boutique shop of a biscuit company, whose name cannot be given for reasons that will be revealed further down, famous for the distinctive, ornate design of their biscuit tins.

“At the start it was kind of cool. I liked the tins and it was good to recover a few hours each week that I’d lost when I was working in the bar,” David told me, when we met up to chat about his work. “It was quite an easy job, too. But it wasn’t long before it felt too easy, and the endless tins stacked on the shelves started driving me kind of crazy. I had to do something creative to occupy my time or I would have lost my mind.”

And do something creative he did. Where normally on the tins there would be framed, intricate pictures of biscuits or of tea-party scenes, David decided to start painting miniature pornographic images, using a similar style to the original and in some cases an even higher level of intricacy.  He kept the original frames, only altering the image that lay within.

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“It started off as a kind of joke, but it quickly grew into something more. I began thinking about why I thought of it as a joke in the first place. In a number of cases I’d found that the language used to sell biscuits, when put in a different context, can quite easily be interpreted as sordid. A cream filled Viennese, a sweet petite treat, you know? It’s like the publicity has a subliminal subject. And people can find in it what they want to find; the sexuality is offered and pointed at, but in a way that gives viewers a choice about what to think instead of telling them directly. My paintings were just making ‘explicit’ one possible interpretation. I started going around flea markets and looking for other things that I could paint on, and I found tins that were selling things other than biscuits that had language that were perfect for what I wanted.”

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Once the collection of painted tins swelled to more than a hundred, and the amount of thought that went into their creation was such that it was no longer just a joke, David decided to exhibit them. His most notable exhibition was in the Salon de Montrouge, Paris, in April last year. As one of a group of artists who were accepted to exhibit side-by-side, David presented the biscuit tins as well as a selection of other work that he’d been developing around the same theme, with the overall aim of exploring the notion of voyeurism.

“I thought about Balthus’s Guitar Lesson. It was this big, graphic, rough painting, and he only showed it once, behind a curtain in a room. You had to choose to go in, like a peep show. I wanted to do something like this, so I made it so that much of my work requires you to interact before you can see what’s happening. It’s a choice. With the biscuit tins, it’s your choice if you pick up and look closely at what’s going on. It’s not quite the same as putting it behind a curtain, but it’s not in your face. Like the tins in the shop, there’s a shelf with a lot of lights and colours, but if you don’t go and poke around a little, you don’t really see anything.”

With most attendees the exhibition was very popular, and David was written about on a number of websites and had an interview on France Culture’s program Mauvais Genres. The biscuit company whose tins he had painted on, however, caught wind of his work and were not the slightest bit happy. One day towards the end of the exhibition a couple of lawyers turned up, with a witness to form a testimonial of proceedings, and handed David a cease and desist letter. They described the work as counterfeit, as being a contravention of copyright, and of going against the values of the brand. If he did not remove all of the work from the exhibition and take photos of it off his website, or if he ever exhibited the work publicly again, they would sue. David went to his lawyer, who sent the biscuit company a letter that read something like ‘Please don’t sue me, I have no money. I’ll take it all down immediately’. In place of where his tins had been, David displayed the letter that he had received, with all personal and company details blacked out.

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A little disheartened by the outcome of his biscuit tin exhibition, but also ready to try something new, David took part in a 2014 summer residency in a small commune in the French Alps, Saint-Vincent-de-Durfort. He still found the subject of sexuality stimulating, but wanted to explore it via other means, and to experiment further with form. Working in different mediums, he explored themes of emancipation and the subliminal subject. His proudest work was in drawing.

“There are these two drawings of mine that each say something different but that can be traced back to the same thematic trajectory.”

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“When there’s an accident on the road, when there’s a crime scene, we all have this voyeuristic inclination to go and take a look. We want to know what’s going on, what’s happening. It’s the same with art, we’re looking for what someone’s trying to say. But what exactly do we want to see? What is our most basic inclination?”

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“Last summer a Turkish minister said that women shouldn’t laugh out loud in public. It inspired me to make this picture, a version of a still from a 1973 Egyptian film called My Wife’s a Hippy. It is up to the audience to decide how it might relate to the overall theme of sexuality and emancipation.”

In late 2014 David came to Shanghai to further expand his body of work. Upon arriving he was told about the semi-famous People’s Square marriage market. The marriage market is an area in a central Shanghai park where men post paper personals in order to try and find a wife. It is then typically mothers who walk around noting down details and comparing them, with the intention of setting their daughters up with whoever they perceive to be the best suitor. There are rarely pictures displayed with the personals, but there are very specific details about the man including height, weight, salary, educational background, ethnicity, zodiac sign and age. David instantly became fascinated with the process, and decided to emulate it in his own way.

“When you are going around this market, you are buying something, someone, and you need to know what you’re buying. There was a lot of honesty in the personals that my friends translated for me, and I wanted to take it one step further and be completely honest. How do I do this? I say I’m not so thin, I’m kind of a drunk, I’m an artist with no money and no house. I want to show my faults as well as my good qualities, you know? So I made my personal, and I also made a portrait of myself, showing with complete honesty who I am.”

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“I didn’t display it at People’s Square, I didn’t see the point. I’m not a performer, I’m not looking for that, for the reaction in that way. It’s more about taking something away, creating something with distance but relevance, as a way to analyse the subject. So I displayed it in a very small space next to a market, along with a couple of other things.”

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“So as well as the personal, over which I’d drawn a piece of board covering my penis as it would otherwise probably have got me in a lot of trouble here in China, I displayed a real personal that I’d taken from People’s Square, and some French-style ‘Happy New Year’ postcards featuring an image of me naked. I felt bad about taking the personal from People’s Square, but that’s another discussion to be had. I lit it all with a red rope light. This was important, I felt, as it related this work to all that I’d done before, in that at its heart lies the theme of sexuality. In China prosperity and marriage are deeply connected, and the colour red is often associated with both. Of course, red lights also have a connection with paid-sex relationships. It could be argued that the lines of distinction between ‘paid’ and ‘unpaid’ relationships are sometimes not very clearly drawn.”

David has now moved back to France, but hopes to return to Shanghai in a couple of months to examine and explore a slightly new avenue of intrigue. After becoming interested in vintage photography, and spending some time rummaging around flea markets, he noticed that many pictures he found featured as their subjects three women.

“I thought back to art history. There are a lot of women triads, think The Three Graces. I started collecting as many as I could. Now I have a huge collection, two or three hundred, and it really features so many cultures and so many time periods. I want to ask why. I’m not a sociologist, I’m just collecting these images and trying to see how they work and why they work. I have a theory, and I want to introduce it in relation to art history, but I’m still looking for how to do it and how to represent and explore the connection. The collection is so strong by itself that I have to find new strategies with the material and make it say something more than just ‘this is an image of three women’. Now I’m reading, drawing a little, but I know it has to go further, it has to explore the societal element in these images; how people react to them. People are usually not thinking about The Three Graces when they make their own images, but they still, consistently, use the same format. I need to explore representation, and how contemporary society views the image that has been built of women. I think it can go far, but I really don’t know how yet. That’s what I’m going to try to figure out. Mostly this year that’s what I’ll be exploring, then we’ll see.”

You can visit David’s site here: http://www.art-davidrodriguez.com/