by Selby Sohn
When I first saw Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s current show, Bretonian Slip, I thought I was looking at photorealism. I was wrong. Although the images look like scenes from a photograph, they are too fantastic. Animals are inside of buildings, flying, faltering, playing, always decadently displayed—sometimes in focus, sometimes blurred. They are redolent of magical realism—a world infused with supernatural, dramatic elements—a genre considered separate from fantasy because it remains anchored in reality. What I saw was reality altered in a bewildering way. What makes his charcoal drawings look so natural is the consistent light pervading his pieces, which, as any artist knows, is difficult to attain. While copying from photographs is easy, images are nearly impossible to conjure out of thin air in a photographically consistent way.
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | The Ambiguity of Glory, 2022 | Charcoal on paper | 72 x 52 inches
Fuenmayor started working on the show nearly a year ago. His practice stems from a close relationship to cinema, thinking about how culture is portrayed through movies. When Fuenmayor moved to the US from Columbia, he was keenly aware of how he was seen through racist stereotypes and how people addressed him differently because of them. In graduate school, he felt the need to perform specific identities—either as a drug lord or someone who is festive and passionate—movie cliches about Columbians. After reading about Judith Butler’s gender performative acts, he realized his Columbian identity is something he consciously performs. Wanting more control, he decided, “Instead of me being the other, I will impose my own stereotypes.”
In his early work, he attempted this with colorful paintings of bananas that spoke to both Columbian stereotypes and Northern and Southern power, trade and labor relations. In these pieces, however, he felt like he was exoticizing himself. It was too easy to hide behind the facade of stereotypes; but while he was becoming a mirror, he was also learning about the tropical gaze within himself and others. He has now exerted more control over this imagery by altering it. By moving from color to black and white, he is subverting meaning of these symbols . If movies determine how he is seen, he would make his own movies.
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | Bretonian Slip, 2022 | Charcoal on paper | 72 x 52 inches
The show’s title, Bretonian Slip, references both a Freudian slip—where we accidentally say what we are thinking — and Andre Breton, who declared Mexico surrealist by nature—a persistent essentializing stereotype Fuenmayor challenges in his work. He teases out such slips throughout the show, sometimes in a deadpan literal manner by showing a banana on stage that someone could slip on, as in Bretonian Slip, the exhibition’s title piece.
These charcoal drawings look like film noir movie stills in old Hollywood mansions. The Etiquette of Agony shows a palm tree invading an empty, decadent dinner table set with ornate dinnerware. The tree is the only thing consuming the meal, challenging our expectations of its animacy. In The Ambiguity of Glory, a seal plays with a ball on top of a small table set with a white dinner cloth in the living room of an ornate mansion. It dominates the scene joyfully. The Toxic Comfort of Fantasy Revisited has a water slide in a mansion’s foyer. I imagine the warm, whooshing water invading this pristine place. The piece, which measures more than eight feet wide, fills my periphery, making me feel like I was in the scene. What was my role? Was I the main character, the foil, a villain or a stranger? This was so exciting. I felt like I should have dressed up for the exhibition, calibrating my movements within it more carefully. I wondered if I would move quickly though the montage or remain entranced in front of the image as if in a dream. Why not live as if I’m in a movie?
A semiotic erraticness pervades Fuenmayor’s work. We see it in palm trees extruding horizontally, flamingos flying out of an ice tray, animals inside buildings, a banana on stage. The longer I looked at them, the more I felt this was the point. If a symbol continues to appear unexpectedly, its meaning slowly unravels by subverting our expectations. For example, it is spectacular to see a banana once in a lifetime, but if we see bananas everywhere, all the time, we rarely think about them. They permeate our lives meaninglessly. We expect things to have certain correlates, to resonate with specific attributes.
Gonzalo Fuenmayor | The Toxic Comfort of Fantasy Revisited, 2021 | Charcoal on paper | 80 x 104 inches
For something to be meaningful, it needs to be seen within a specific context. By overextending the meanings of Columbian symbolism, Fuenmayor teases out its influence, allowing something bound to float free. In doing so he may also be freeing himself — to live with abandon, without expectations.
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Gonzalo Fuenmayor: “Bretonian Slip” @ Dolby Chadwick Gallery through April 29, 2023.
About the author: Selby Sohn is a Bay Area artist, critic, and curator who makes objects and actions on the brink of utility. Currently, their work is on a NASA PACE-1 satellite orbiting Earth and in Bass & Reiner at Minnesota Street Project. They have upcoming exhibitions and performances at Liminal Space and Wave Collective Space. Their writing is also published in KQED, The Racket Journal, and Journal.fyi.