by Maria Porges

There is something defiant — or, at the very least, ironic  — about Picturesque, the title of Colombian expatriate Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s show of ten recent charcoal drawings. Scenery described as picturesque is pretty or quaint: the kind of place one visits (or exploits) but rarely lives. Fuenmayor, now settled in Miami for some years, has investigated themes of colonialization and exoticism in his work since his student days in New York in the late ‘90s, exploring such subjects as bananas (Colombia’s third largest legal agricultural export) and the baroque, fruit-laden headgear worn by Latin American actress and singer Carmen Miranda.

In these polished, persuasive works, Fuenmayor continues to mine complex veins of surrealistic socio-political criticism, moving on to include the palm tree — for Americans, the ultimate signifier of tropical vacations — and startling, theatrical compositions featuring the improbable combination of elaborate 17th and 18th century architectural elements with, of all things, swimming pools.

Historically a symbol of wealth, pools also offer an interesting opportunity to turn our point of view upside down, both literally and figuratively. Astonishingly, Fuenmayor covers the sides of these elegant voids with virtuoso renderings of complex, carved details of the sort seen on the ceilings of palaces. Writhing patterns of animals and/or vegetation suggest a degree of useless, luxurious excess. The idea of a gilded, coffered swimming pool, equipped with a regulation diving board, is a brilliantly perverse conceit — wholly original and somewhat unsettling, suggesting what the artist has described as a double negative. These pools are anti-minimalist non-spaces, their neatly defined edges leading to interiors that exhibit a level of decadence that even dictators cannot aspire to.

The pools in works like God Noise or The Surface of a Song lack not only water but occupants; set in darkened, vaguely theatrical-looking spaces, they suggest a stage or stadium as vacant as the mausoleum-like rooms of a palace museum after visiting hours have ended. Spot-lit as if for some imminent spectacle, the places and spaces in all of these drawings are post-apocalyptically unpeopled, the diving boards and racing blocks empty. The only actors present are the palms, peeking through stage curtains in A Tropical Itch, piercing overstuffed armchairs in A Botanical Coincidence and filling kidney-shaped pools in Immersion and The Insolence of Wonder.

In other works, Fuenmayor explores staging in a different way. Palm features a succession of ornate carved frames, each smaller than the one containing it, receding back to a tiny, jewel-like image of a single windblown palm: nature oppressively dressed up by culture, like a wunderkammer's coconut cup. In Sunset, a similar composition of stacked trompe l’oeil frames, the distant miniature image at the center calls to mind an end-of-day spectacle viewed from a veranda in a Latin American Magic Realist novel, rum drink in hand, accompanied by the sound of maracas and possibly distant gunfire. Even thinking such thoughts — all the while appreciating Fuenmayor’s dark humor and compelling conjunctions of tropical glamor and antique opulence — inspires a twinge of post-colonial guilt. And that is as it should be.

Gonzalo Fuenmayor: “Picturesque” @ Dolby Chadwick Gallery through October 1, 2016.

About the Author:

Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, The New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.

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