Artists in Motion: Urban artist Denny Rivera

Denny Rivera sits before two of his portraits in his basement studio at his home in Niantic. The portrait to the left is of rap artist Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, founder of rap group A Tribe Called Quest. To the right is a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
(Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Denny Rivera sits before two of his portraits in his basement studio at his home in Niantic. The portrait to the left is of rap artist Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, founder of rap group A Tribe Called Quest. To the right is a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Name: Denny Rivera

Age: 41

Hometown: New London

Now Lives: Niantic

His art and involvement in the New London art scene:

Rivera is an urban mixed-media artist who focuses on creating works ranging from abstract paintings to wall murals, silkscreen prints to pop-art inspired portraits, most of which are bursting with color.

Though Rivera is a 1994 graduate of New London High School and grew up in the city, he lived in New York City for the last seven years before moving back to the region in 2017 to be closer to family. Besides pursuing art, Rivera currently works as a cafeteria aid for New London Public Schools.

Having been involved in the New London art scene in the late ’00s, Rivera recently made efforts to re-enter that realm after hosting an art show at The Oasis Pub at the end of February. His show, a collaboration with Frank Marchany (a local DJ and founder of The Famous New London apparel brand), featured spray-painted prints and urban-inspired canvas paintings of famous cartoon characters such as Felix the Cat and Chilly Willy over brightly colored abstract backgrounds. It was the first time Rivera had shown in New London since 2011.

Rivera’s key involvements with the downtown scene began in 2007, when he and Marchany opened a sneaker and skateboard shop/art gallery, Muse, on Green Street. Two years later, Rivera opened his own apparel shop, Aticc, on the same street, with his wife, then girlfriend, Cristin Gallagher (a voiceover actor and fashion designer). Aticc, too, functioned as an art space where Rivera rotated exhibits from emerging artists from throughout the area and New York City, fueling a then-burgeoning downtown art scene. Simultaneously, Rivera would often show his work at Hygienic Art Galleries as well as the Mystic Museum of Art, then known as the Mystic Arts Center. Both Muse and Aticc closed in 2010 when Rivera moved to Brooklyn to further pursue his artistic career.

Besides making gallery art, Rivera has created several murals throughout New London. One, a bright blue mural with hibiscus flowers, can be found on the back wall of the Brass Rail Cafe on Water Street. A wall-sized map of the world, painted last year, can be found in the cafeteria of C.B. Jennings Elementary School. In 2014, Rivera also helped paint the well-known road mural found in the intersection of Green and Golden Street.

A bit more background:

Besides taking an art class in high school, Rivera is a self-taught artist, learning through experimentation and experience. He began to seriously chase these artistic aspirations in high school after discovering that he was inherently creative. “I never was that great of a student, but I was always a very visual person. I could only learn through pictures,” he says.

Rivera says he initially began photographing New London on a 35 mm Minolta camera while still in high school (in the early ’90s) with a friend. “Photography was my thing. I had a friend who was deep into it with me. We would go out together, any time of night and shoot film. We would get so many different images. Thousands of images.”

From there, Rivera started developing his own photos in his home bathroom, which eventually led him to dabble in other mediums, such as paint.

In 2001, Rivera was hired to work as a part-time art assistant to late minimalist artist Sol LeWitt — helping LeWitt complete pieces such as the mural in the foyer of State Street’s Crocker House.

“It was through him that I started meeting other artists and getting connected into the art scene. That opened so many doors. It was the best experience of my life,” he says. “I just got to be in that realm of being so professional. He is famous, so that put me somewhere else mentally … It gave me that hope that this could be something I could do as a career.”

Cultivating his aesthetic:

After moving to Brooklyn in 2010 with his wife and their son, Rivera started working full-time jobs within the food industry (which included a stint with Google), while creating his own urban-inspired art and making connections throughout the New York City worlds of art and hip hop.

“I was doing street art on canvases. It was very guerilla, very dirty. Always colorful pieces,” he says of the time when he first moved to the city.

It was during this period that Rivera also started to cultivate his portrait aesthetic — a style similar to that of Shepard Fairey’s iconic 2008 “Hope” poster depicting Barack Obama’s face in various shades of red, white and blue. A 2007 portrait of late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as a young man was Rivera’s first foray into the style. Later, Rivera started painting portraits of admired hip hop artists of the ’80s and ’90s (ones affiliated with groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, among others).

“The idea to do that (portrait style) was a mistake. I printed out a photograph of someone where the hues of their face wasn’t right. It didn’t hit me right away. I saw it and was like ‘Oh, you need to print this again.’ But then I still had the misprinted image in my folder, and a few weeks later I thought maybe I would then do images like this through painting,” he says.

Rivera started showing his work in several galleries throughout the Lower East Side and downtown Manhattan, such as Sacred Gallery, Exit Room and White Rabbit, until eventually he started collaborating with the artists he was painting to form shows of their own.

“Portraying a person is a little more personal, it raises the bar a little more. You have to get more serious. It’s not just painting a car. It’s a person, so you have to capture something in them,” he says.

“There are shades that can be seen in everyone’s face, and that’s what I work with. I take a photograph, will dabble around with it on photoshop, mess with the hues. The shading will be there already in the photograph, and I then transfer that image by drawing it with pencil onto canvas and then painting colors on from there.”

What’s Next: Rivera is planning to potentially open another art gallery in downtown New London. "I'm waiting for that to still show up," he says. "If it knocks on the door, it could happen. Its gotta knock on my door, I won't rush it."

QUICK TAKES

Top five artists? Barkley Hendricks, AVone, Ricky Powell, Ron Haywood Jones, Julian Schnabel

You’re locked in a museum for a night — which one? Metropolitan Museum of Art

Favorite album? “Midnight Marauder” by A Tribe Called Quest

Which artist, living or dead, would you most like to hang out with? Keith Haring

m.biekert@theday.com

“Love,” stretched canvas print, 2016. (Courtesy of Denny Rivera)
“Love,” stretched canvas print, 2016. (Courtesy of Denny Rivera)
“DeLa,” stretched canvas print, 2016 (Courtesy of Denny Rivera)
“DeLa,” stretched canvas print, 2016 (Courtesy of Denny Rivera)
“Marquee at Midnight,” mixed media on canvas, 2017 (Courtesy Denny Rivera)
“Marquee at Midnight,” mixed media on canvas, 2017 (Courtesy Denny Rivera)

If you go

What: Pop-up art show by Denny Rivera

Where: The Oasis Pub, 16 Bank St., New London

When: 7 p.m.-1 a.m. everyday. Runs through Feb. 23.

Price: Free

Call: (860) 447-3929

 

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