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DEVAN SHIMOYAMA | SALOMÓN HUERTA                    
Essay by Toro Castaño

Salomón Huerta (b. 1965) is an established figure who embodies the classic notion of an artist. His oeuvre is comprised of distinct bodies of work, each the indexical trace of the artist’s inquiry and consideration of issues informed from his environment or relationships as points of departure. Devan Shimoyama (b 1989) is a young emerging artist whose creative production takes many directions and forms, each in service of resolving a particular inquiry or issue from either the artist’s life or the public sphere. Huerta produced the paintings included in this exhibition in the 1990s when he was in close proximity to Shimoyama’s current age.[1] Though clearly the young men employed vastly different pictorial strategies, both artists are dealing with identification and identity, and what it means to occupy a particular type of body. Huerta’s early works are a syncretic blend of classical painting techniques, modernist composition, and a commitment to the Cholo aesthetic of East L.A. Shimoyama’s equally self articulated process bears the indexical trace of the artists process of self mapping and internal psychological development.

Both artists make work that is largely figural yet they each deal with the human body in distinct ways. In Huerta’s drawings the body of the artists sitter emerges from a void accentuating the corporeal quality of the brown flesh. Valo’s Tattoo, 1994, depicts Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec/Mexica feathered serpent deity depicted as rendered by the Spanish codex’s at the time of conquest. These images connote ethnic pride and a grounded authenticity that for those initiated, nods towards Aztlán, the legendary ancestral home of the Aztec peoples. These Chicano-centric images allude to the romanticized ideology of the movement, which as the term itself connotes, promotes a strong sense of self-fashioning of one’s identity. The elongated fingers of Huerta’s model form “H,” the hand sign for the Big Hazard gang, which claimed the territory of East LA’s Ramona Gardens Housing Projects where Huerta grew up. An Aztec counting marker is rendered in bright pink pastel and overlays the lower register of the canvas. These are powerful signifiers in of themselves that enact a dual purpose. While the images are derived from Chicano visual culture (as encountered in the artist’s environment), they are also an attempt to dislocate identity. Huerta achieves this by utilizing as pictorial objects in a fine art drawing. One only needs to look at Huerta’s body of work to see how tightly composed compositions comprise the artists signature. These vernacular images and symbols bare more of an object-like quality that has more in common with the great Modernist Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine Paintings than with the historic murals now adorning the walls of the projects.

Since the 1970s minoritarian artists have negotiated politics and strategies of representation that initially was comprised on an attempt to locate an original root culture in a search for authenticity. Artists of this decade achieved this through a breaking with the established art world and the creation of alternate art centers.  In the Black and Chicano Arts Movements there was an embrace and utilization of imagery considered vernacular and unrefined. These strategies were not intended as wholesale rejections of the canon of Western art history, but served in the development of autonomous canons populated with images that might be considered applied art. Five decades of actualizing discourse has moved collective understanding from a that of a shared awakening and race consciousness to an emphasis placed on the autonomous individual, moving away from identification with race or ethnicity altogether. The contemporary Academy has offered new monikers such as post-black, post-queer, and even post-human. They reflect the desire to move beyond what some experienced as racialized confinement. Curator Rita González has identified Salomon Huerta as a post-Chicano artist[2]. Former Director of USC’s Graduate Fine Arts program, Josh Kun builds on this descriptive term to articulate post-Chicano artists as engaging in a negotiation between tradition and change; rather than discarding tradition outright. Along with breaks from traditional forms there can be continuity[3].

In this present moment there are those who naively believe that the election of President Barack Obama signified a resolution to issues of race and inequality. Yet this submerging of these issues has failed to resolve anything, it has simply rendered these topics seemingly invisible. In the art world, there still often exists an expectation of particular artists to act as native agents working primarily through the lens of race. In lieu of a submission to the 2012 Whitney Biennial, artist Andrea Fraser penned the text: there’s no place like home. In the piece of writing which appeared in the exhibition catalogue, Fraser invoked Freudian psychology and cultural theory to comment on the ways in which the art world’s cultural workers profess to be neutral authorities ungoverned by biases and unmotivated by personal gain.  Fraser’s critique of the art world’s ties to finance and by proxy power may be extended to examples that include race, class, or even gender. This surely accounts for the ways particular artists are expected to produce auxiliary labor assessed not solely based on their artistic output. There are those who decry that race doesn’t exist. In fact race is a construct with no scientific basis but this doesn’t mitigate the material conditions that have very real effects. Perhaps our human nature may be partly to blame. To asses and judge is human. Jean-Paul Sartre referred to this bifold structure of identity as, “being for another”. In other words, the way we see ourselves doesn’t always coincide with how we are perceived and subsequently what is expected of us. It is this being seen by another that captures and renders us frozen in an objectified gaze. Since painting is a representational vehicle, artists may play with an array of strategies to soften and even entice the gaze of the viewer away from wholly fixed notions. Huerta achieves this through masterful composition and color, while Shimoyama’s fantastically adorned figures disarm and dazzle through sheer presence.

Representational strategies are only the surface of Shimoyama’s process. Shimoyama was raised by a Lesbian mother deep in the embrace of the Black Church and he learned at a young age that within specific community spheres certain identities and sexualities must remain hidden or masked. This unconscious negotiation produced a belief in the syncretic processes that allow the artist to liberally select from classical mythology and belief systems as diverse as elements of Chaos Magic[4]. It is the unlikely layering and appropriation that allows the artist to render into life his fantastic figures.

In the work Daphne, 2015 Shimoyama has culled from Greek mythology and inserted himself as the central figure. The work not only functions as a means of self-exploration, but also constitutes a votive like figure for anyone to engage in contemplative thought. Shimoyama, himself a young man who has searched for deeper understanding of what it means to be black, male, and queer, often imbues his compositions with narrative elements that articulate his own journey. Shimoyama’s unbounded research into topics ranging from folklore derived from African and Caribbean cultures illustrates the process of how theoretical material catalyzes into a painted work. Conscious consideration of the material is filtered and processed through the artist’s own psyche, often by way of vivid dreams recalled days afterward. Shimoyama imbues this exploration with a sense of play that keeps the artist open to the pairing of seemingly disparate concepts. Painting becomes alchemy, a prayer, a meditation and certainly a way for the artist to put forth a transmission into the world for those receptive and open to receiving it. Shimoyama’s diverse oeuvre, which includes painting, sculpture, even rituals, all work to produce artworks that function as intertextual atlases with figures who stand in as archetypes. The paintings included in this exhibition are both composite and semi-autobiographical metaphysical portraits, rendered dazzling through the use of shiny reflective materials. The figures bearing the resemblance of Shimoyama are depicted from a psychic bricolage of experiences and charged remnants, or the repurposing of materials some might consider insignificant domestic detritus. To be black and queer in America is to occupy a shifting space subject to external perception and constant negotiation of one’s identity, masculinity, and often one’s personal value.

It was the artist Mickalene Thomas’ signature painting style, which employs complex compositions making liberal use of rhinestones, acrylic and enamel, which revealed to Shimoyama the auratic nature that such materials seem to inherently posses. This quality evades photographic reproduction, and must be be viewed in person to reveal their magical qualities. Materials and materiality form the basis of Shimoyama’s mixed media compositions which have a collage aesthetic.  In the heavily built up surfaces small figures dip in and out of the stream of the canvasses surface plane.  This collage aesthetic is imbued at the start of the artist’s process as many compositions begin as digital collages and involve reworking multiple times before even being considered for canvas. Figures are culled from an abundance of stock imagery that the artist uses to achieve familiarity and encourage projection. Some compositions are achieved through a printing on paper process while many have a drawn component. The process emphasizes the quality of immediacy and each material functions in a specific way for the artist. Black glitter connotes the qualities of a nighttime starry sky and becomes a signifier when it appears in a composition. When prone to a figural body, its meaning is amplified; perhaps the figure is absorbing the night sky or as in Greek mythology, the figure becomes the night sky after the sun sets. Other materials function as signifiers for elements. Green sequins connote moss while heavily impasto paint often signifies the texture of African American hair. Many of the materials present in this series are a nod towards queerness and specifically an inherent associated campiness. Glitter, sequins, or rhinestones project both a beauty and an abjectness when coupled with masculinity, those qualities, that abjectness, is parallel to being a black male but also to the messiness of being male and human.

The abundance of materials used is evident in With You Always, 2014. Artificial flowers adorn the surface while plush animal toys dive into one area of canvas and emerge from another. The surface is substantive and built up in a kind of personal history bricolage of objects from the artists childhood home. These seemingly insignificant toys become adornments on the multiple painted iteration of Shimoyama’s body which embrace and place hands upon one another. A cast version of the artist dressed with his own personal objects embraces a current and more fully realized version as if to say, “it’s not easy (referencing the title of the preceding work) but it’ll be okay.” The painting represents the continuity between the past and present and for the artist this is a portrait of comfort.

Huerta and Shimoyama both use scale very deliberately to produce particular resonances and relationships to viewers. Huerta’s early works experimented with scale as a sociological device commenting on hierarchical positioning. It is clear that the artist’s figural portrait work had continued to refine the use of scale. In his “heads” series Huerta played with pictorial conventions of portraiture, painting subjects facing away from the viewer leaving no information for the human brains temporal lobe to process, interrupting our attempt to garner any information about the individual. After attending graduate school, Huerta began to use portraiture to interrogate the history of representation. Fully articulated bodies begin to inhabit his minimal highly composed paintings. These figures face away from the viewer in acts of refusal around identification, yet the perfectly balanced compositions employ scale to draw viewers in creating an intimacy. Shimoyama’s figures take up a large amount of space within confines of a canvas as if the rectilinear plane simply cannot contain them. The life-size quality of the figures is also intended to draw viewers in, creating a one to one relationship that also feels intimate. Yet in each of the figures the eyes have been covered or obscured with jewel-like stones that embellish the surface. Like ancient Mesopotamian votive figures the eyes signal attentiveness to a divine quality. For the viewer, these dazzling facets function as an entry point and an invitation to join these figures, perhaps in some otherworldly space of contemplation and self-reflexivity.

Despite these elements, Huerta’s works still contain enough information so as to offer particular viewers some form of identification. Art critic David Pagel articulated this as Huerta creating secular icons: if one accepts the proposal that style is a signifying practice, then it is possible to read enough information for personal identification to occur. Seams on pants appear perfectly straight and pressed indicating attentiveness to appearance, giving solidity and dignity to the figures that wear utilitarian type clothing. Both artists utilize color as a means of identification, though they implement it quite differently. For Huerta color functions as a device to draw viewers in: monochrome backgrounds drawn from commercial fashion shoots and design palettes create a familiar kind of resonance for most viewers. Shimoyama gives life to his figures by applying warm hues in the chest area, focusing attention and aiding the eye in travelling though these paintings. The most recent painting, Let Me Help, 2015, signals Shimoyama’s move away from color. The central figure is prone on hands and knees. His mask like face emits a projectile. A secondary figure wrestles the primary figure, torsos are connected, and intense fire-like energy explodes where the hands make contact.  The work is an homage to Wrestlers, 1899 painted by Thomas Eakins. The homosocial bonding has been subject to multiple interpretations. Curator Ilene Fort sees the work as symbolic of the artist’s personal struggles[5]. Indeed, as the title Let Me Help suggests, multiple readings are possible. The figures’ struggle is set against a nighttime sky. The secondary figure, which has no discernable features, seems to be constituted of energetic brightly colored particles. The projectile that emits from the mouth stands for an energy which has been held in until this moment. There is both pain and release indicating a potentiality for growth and healing that only comes with self-understanding and acceptance.

In conjunction with this exhibition a series of five photographs are presented. Produced by Shimoyama these images document a ritual action the artist created as part of a residency on Fire Island. The figure carries a large silver colored orb and bears the familiar enlarged silver colored bejeweled eyes. A large upturned silver phallus protrudes from the groin area and the dark skinned body is covered in honey and glitter. The beach at sunrise was selected as a site for its ambiguous aura in order to produce a scene similar to his paintings, which exists outside of time.

This unstructured ritual which we see documented was a heartfelt response to the artist’s feelings of frustration over the seemingly continuous loss of black lives by violence. The painful rupture that produced the loosely connected grassroots group, Black Lives Matter, was the catalyst that focused Shimoyama to enact the ritual as an attempt to will something into being, the cessation of the loss of lives.  In the unstructured ritual the artist/character speaks his origins seeking to understand where things went wrong. The ritual offers a contemplative space in which to examine and understand the past so as to gain some insight into where things went so wrong. Insight gained, the figure can enact on the present and move into the future which if not resolved at least the trauma producing rupture might cease. The ritual represents hopefulness for a future in which black lives, black male lives, and black queer lives not only matter but are protected. It is Shimoyama’s desire that his body function in the same way as his paintings, offering to viewers a shared mask to be worn by all alike. Shimoyama’s lived embodied experience is wed to this idea. The artist is committed to the notion of his body as something that does not belong to him but is in fact communal.  And it is at this site, that the ideas and processes invoked in the painted body of work coalesce to offer exactly what it is each of us may need.  

Footnotes:
[1]
It is of note that these works were produced prior to Huerta attending grad school.

[2] González, Rita, et al. Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement. Berkeley, Calif. :Los Angeles: University of California Press ; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008. Print.

[3] Josh, Kun. “The New Chicano Movement.” LA Times 9 Jan. 2005, Art sec. Print.

[4] Shimoyama is interested in many philosophies even those more esoteric in nature. Shimoyama, Devan. “Telephone Conversation.” Telephone interview. 18 Dec. 2015.

[5] Berman, Avis. “Wrestling with ‘Wrestlers’.” ARTnews. ARTnews, 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Left Image: Salomón Huerta, Untitled Man, 1996, Oil on Wood, 11.5 x 12.5in.

Right Image: Devan Shimoyama, Adjusting to the Luminous Black, 2015, Oil, Glitter, Rhinestones, Beads, Collage on Canvas, 68 x 48 x 2.25in.