In this selfie Instagram world, it’s such a relief to see good portraiture. You can find it at the 35th exhibition of Contemporary Art Month at the McNay. You can also find quirky and bizarre art–filled with the artists’ personality and sense of humor–that reflects our current era, marked by the strange bedfellows of vanity and the apocalypse. I’m going to focus on theses artists, but there’s also great art by Jasmyne Graybill, Amada Miller, Megan Harrison, and Nicholas Frank.
The show, Topographies of Truth, features nine San Antonio artists selected by Lee Hallman, Associate Curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Hallman winnowed down her selection from the open call and then did studio visits, eventually selecting nine artists to fill the McNay’s Frost Galleries, which is the museum’s designated space for contemporary art.
In the first gallery, three artists focus on portraiture. This genre seems deceptively simple as a form, yet each of these artists complicates the medium through various methods. While photography may seem to be a direct representation of its subject, two of these artists demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case. With identity politics, representation comes with responsibilities.
Mari Hernandez describes herself as a “self portrait artist” (think Cindy Sherman). She works in photography, using herself as the subject. In this series, Hernandez stacks multiple profile shots of herself, one over the other, to create elegant, ghost-like images. The photos are in black and white, and she has reproduced them in a small scale frame and hung them in a horizontal row to reference mug shots. According to Hernandez, the actual form of a mug shot derives from the theory of physiognomy. This theory, popular in the 19th century, is based on the belief that a person’s facial characteristics can denote one’s character. Images of a person’s profile were laid over standardized physiognomy charts to see if they conform to the defined characteristics–usually to try to detect criminals. Hernandez uses facial prostheses to alter the shape of her face–nose, cheeks, and chin–and she wears her hair in various styles for each persona she becomes, accented with different white tops. She doesn’t bother to try to disguise or blend in these prostheses, instead allowing for the various shadowy contours and the layering to impose multiple lines, which makes it difficult to discern one defined, specific image. The details become slippery, suggesting how you can never really fully know a person, and that we each have multiple aspects to ourselves. By denying the viewer one defined image, Hernandez’s images contradict the practices racial profiling and stereotyping.
In contrast to Hernandez’s smaller photos, Anthony Francis exhibits grand, imposing portraits of his subjects. These are inkjet prints, but the scale, color and poses of Francis’ images recall traditional portraiture, with echos of Old Master paintings. Brilliant touches of yellow and red combine with the severe and dramatic gazes of his subjects. Edward wears a scarf dramatically wrapped around his shoulder; Krystal faces off the camera in a pose of sheer power and defiance; Millicent (who is Francis’ mother) holds her hand palm up and open, as if cupping some invisible medium that she seems to be proffering. These hand gestures, poses and clothing play an important role here just as it did in traditional portraiture. The difference, though, is Francis’ conscious choice to put his present day subjects into these traditional formats via photography. The gaze of each of Francis’s subjects appears to look right through the viewer, subverting the possibility of eye contact. This gives them a sense of defiance, a challenge echoed by their accompanying titles. Francis writes long, poetic and slightly opaque titles for his images (see caption above).
Raul Gonzalez grew up in inner city Houston and received an MFA in painting from UTSA. The image above is painted on a concrete chunk taken out of his backyard. Gonzalez’s dedication to art penetrates every aspect of his life. Or maybe it’s that he opens his life to art; he even has an Airbnb that doubles as a gallery. His interest is in abstraction, as demonstrated his 2019 exhibition at ArtPace, but he’s also a stay-at-home dad, and he incorporates this part of his life into his career almost seamlessly. His paintings (there are also some on canvas) feature moments of him at home or in his studio with his two daughters. To anyone who’s raised kids, it’s clear that Gonzalez has figured out that the best path forward is not to fight his role but instead embrace it, and the scenes depict how, through the eyes of a young child, everything from the most menial task becomes a form of play, and that everyone is better off when a parent allows them to live that way. His four-year-old even took the photographs that he painted two of the scenes from–one is an image of a studio visit with his gallerist, him showing paintings to her as his daughter clowns around in the foreground. The paintings feature the fluorescent, playful colors of toys; he uses this palette in his abstract work as well. Gonzalez started out as a performance artist, but after one really intense performance, when he fought two other artists with paint rollers, he sustained knee injuries and turned to painting. But Gonzalez still dances (and has done so at the McNay).
A glimmer in the last gallery lured me towards Jimmy James Canales’ Chrome Mirror Suit, and the accompanying video which features the artist wearing it. The suit, made from bicycle mirrors, is suspended from the gallery ceiling and rotates slowly around, reflecting the silvery light with glints of red from the reflectors. As an object, the suit is strangely beautiful in and of itself, made from utilitarian objects that have been transformed into something magical. In his video, wearing it, Canales becomes a contemporary mythical figure, a cross between Narcissus and Icarus. To Roberta Flack’s epic love ballad, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Canales stares, deadpan, into the mirrors, gazing at himself. He pulls out a comb and grooms his hair and mustache; he polishes the mirrors clean with Windex. When wearing the suit, Canales’ back and both of his arms are covered by the mirrors; the arms have handles that he holds to form an iconic, Christ-like pose. Canales’ performance is a clever and hilarious awakening to the narcissism that accompanies social media–how we’re surrounded by pictures, and obsessed with making sure we post just the right images of ourselves. The bicycle mirrors also evoke so much more–how each one provides a different view; and how we can be ruled by the impulse to check ourselves and our phones, all the time, even while driving.
On the front lawn, in great juxtaposition to the kinetic sculpture and the koi pond, is Buster Graybill’s R.MUTT: Renegade Modernist Utility Travel Trailer, 2019. Graybill, who teaches for the graduate sculpture program at UTSA, named his trailer after Duchamp’s readymade urinal. He has designed it to be a custom survival/modern art trailer, with all of the predictable necessities–tools, oven, bedding–along with stashes of emergency whiskey and a bright green milk cart filled with books on bushcraft and modern art. The exterior is painted in the urban camouflage colors of grays and blacks. With its big all-terrain tires and custom profile, the trailer looks like a high-end fantasy camping RV trailer that’s been high-jacked by the curious, ingenious brain of an artist.