Daniel Rona turns mental battles into 'Body Forms'

Andy Downing

When Daniel Rona first started to discover an interest in art, he thought he might pursue portraiture, with early efforts focused on recreating the human body in hyper-realistic form.

Gradually, though, these figures have warped and eroded, transforming into the angular, alien figures filling the canvases in Rona’s new show, “Body Forms,” which opens at 934 Gallery on Friday, Sept. 4. (The virtual premiere takes place at 6 p.m. on YouTube and Facebook Premier, while limited in-person viewings begin at 934 at 7 p.m.Click here to reserve a time.)

“I had that idea [of the human body] in my head, and I wanted to push it to its furthest extent and see how weird I could get it,” said Rona, adding that additional motivation could have come from exploring the human form during an era when some of humanity’s worst aspects are regularly on display. “It seems like [the art] usually comes subconsciously, so it’s hard to put my finger on it, but maybe there was a desire … to take things a notch further because I was just overwhelmed by humans being this crazy.”

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“Body Forms,” which also encompasses a giant, 70-foot outdoor mural painted on 934 Gallery, is rooted in a comparatively academic late-2019 North Market exhibit in which Rona explored the human form exclusively in black and white, embracing each canvas as an opportunity to home in on the particulars of his craft. “A lot of that stuff was focused on sort of reteaching myself painting, so I was doing values, shapes, line work, compositional studies, things like that,” said Rona, who started drawing as a child, sketching prototype cars and G.I. Joe figurines, inspired by his car designer father. “I had it in my mind, OK, this winter is going to be me studying my painting, so I was very aware of the academic side of what I was doing. ... It was definitely used as a building block.”

If that North Market exhibit could be viewed as an actor locked in rehearsal, then “Body Forms” is the more freewheeling stage show, with Rona wielding his skillset more freely and colorfully. In one piece, an exploration in shades of red, angular limbs twist together, eyeballs locked to the sky as if viewing something just off frame. Another busier, blue-hued piece sets Rona’s deconstructed figures against a cloud-dotted sky, the harshness of the forms accentuated by the relative serenity of the backdrop.

As Rona painted amid stay-at-home orders, he said his thoughts often turned to the comments section. He would take note of negative posts positing that the world could be coming to an end, and he questioned if he would even have the opportunity to hang the pieces he was completing during a lost year when public art spaces have been shuttered or severely rate-limited by COVID. 

“I was having these mental battles reading into that nonsense and misinformation and the anti-maskers and whatnot,” Rona said. “I was doing my best to continue working through it, because painting is more based on expression and how I’m feeling, so working through those thoughts … maybe fueled the process, as well.”

The warped and twisted bodies also felt more natural and more attuned to the times than the flowers that dominated previous collections and projected a sense of prettiness, Rona said.

“I think it carries a sense of that, where flowers just wouldn’t feel appropriate,” he continued. “I was essentially trying to picture my creative conscience, the quote ‘warriors’ that are in my head protecting me. … So I’d say these [characters] live in the chaotic-ness of my head, and, at the end of the day, I’m just trying to capture them on canvas.”

A piece from the "Body Forms" exhibit by Daniel Rona