Spectating the Supernatural by Alex Ross

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Javier Gatti-Hernandez on view at CUE Art Foundation January 27 - March 12, 2011. 

Javier Gatti-Hernandez was born in 1978 to Cuban immigrants settled in Miami. In place of today's Herzog & de Meuron parking lots and Zaha Hadid designed art booths, the city then was better known for neglected retiree condos, faded souvenir stands, and a breed of glamour distinctly more louche than luxe. Though contemporary art was scarce in Miami, the city did have a decisive impact on Gatti-Hernandez's artistic practice. According to his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Naomi Fisher, "It was half Scarface, half newly planned model city. It was a site of immigrant struggle set against a backdrop of tawdry fashion shoots, and none of us fit in. We responded with a punk ethos...Using the language of fashion to subvert fashion stereotypes was the right way to go." Gatti-Hernandez's earliest paintings imparted a satirizing and surrealist bent to collisions between glamor and ghettoes, swaggering machismo and delicate dandyism, urban sprawl and ancient marshlands.

The artist moved to New York after high school, earning his BFA from Cooper Union in 2001. In college, he began directing experimental short films that teased the divide between the mythic and homespun.Dido's Lament (2000) conflated Dido's suicide with Daphne's transformation against a backdrop of apartment life and art studio drywall. After graduating, he worked as the production manager for the director's collaborative Panoptic, Inc., where he produced and co-directed work that ranged from commercials for multinational brands to music videos for up-and-coming indie bands. In 2007, the artist relocated to Santa Fe to participate in the New Mexico Filmmaker's Intensive Director's Program, where he wrote and directed the short film Beatrice in 2008. On his decision to remain in Santa Fe, he notes, "It's mostly about being in a quiet place that allows me to look internally; something I always had a hard time doing amid the constant external assaults of New York City." As the current manager of Santa Fe's Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque, his introspection contributes to the program's reputation for theoretical self-awareness. Though it registers no discernible visual impact on his current paintings, the city's tranquility has also afforded him the time to readopt an art form he had abandoned during his intensive engagement with filmmaking.

According to Gatti-Hernandez, the ten small-scale paintings in his first New York solo exhibition were motivated by two roughly simultaneous personal events: the death of his thirty-four year old female cousin and his engagement to his fiancée. What he terms "a surreal hybrid of these two women" serves as the protagonist of a series of paintings where she and we confront nature and the unknown. Her appearance varies from scene to scene: sometimes she is a red-haired diva in a floral print dress, elsewhere a fey brunette brooding in her denim cutoffs, in others a B-movie starlet overpowered by a frowzy ghost. Situations and narrative cues differ, but in mood his pictures share a seductive, mild-mannered eeriness. Departing from the knowingness of his cinematic work, his first body of paintings in several years projects a sensibility that is profoundly disarming in its unguarded sincerity.

Though Gatti-Hernandez cites Stanley Spencer, Peter Blume, and Ben Shahn as his principal influences - and his paintings do share these artists' preoccupation with fusing the forthright and fantastical - his works forge dialogues with a welter of historical and contemporary sources. His Miami background and embrace of gothic theatricality invite comparisons to several newly ascendant stars of the Florida art scene. The paintings of Daniel Arsham echo in Gatti-Hernandez's depictions of oneiric architectures abandoned in forlorn overgrowths; Hernan Bas' gothicized ephebes would be perfectly at home languishing in Across the River Styx's stygian grottoes; and, Bakthi Baxter's scenes of sepulchral romance share clear affinities with Gatti-Hernandez's swampy dreamscapes. Yet, his crisp outlines, thin paint handling, consistent palette of chilly pastels, and tendency to centralize his compositions contribute to a look more closely allied with American folk art and mid-century illustration.

Gatti-Hernandez has indicated that his suppression of overt painterly activity arises from a resolution to emphasize his image's sense of familiarity - squeezing credibility into their occasionally incredible scenarios. Addressing the possibility that viewers will mistake his work's advertently homespun appearance for naiveté, he replies, "I have no real business adding to the modernist history of painting as painting." Instead, his focus lies in crafting strangely resonant narratives that fall loosely into three categories: spectators of nature, spectators of supernature, and unpeopled landscapes that bridge the divide between the two.

In The Fiancée (2010), we find the series' lead actress in a stiff, wrist-crossed pose. Frozen dead-center, she stands lap-deep in water against an aggressive backdrop of needle palms. Their meticulously rendered, exploding green fronds echo in her dress - a veritable painting within a painting whose pattern abstracts their spurred points into a vast network of darting lines rendered in a sanguinary hue. As is often the case in Gatti-Hernandez's latest works, her face is blocked from view - obscured here by an impossible tangle of wind-whipped hair. Undercutting the image's formality, this is exactly the sort of small but delightfully unexpected move that exemplifies the artist's at once moody and modest quirks.

Gatti-Hernandez's paintings often return to his own videos for inspiration. Daphne (2010) resumes his preoccupation with the myth explored in his film Dido's Lament, but departs from the latter's compulsory low-budget aesthetic. Against a backdrop of windswept grasses rendered in anxious, darting strokes and the haphazardly arrayed trusses of an unfinished home, the series' protagonist is swathed in a salmon shaded Yves Saint Laurent kimono dress whose floral print aestheticizes nature's profusion. With an appearance that merges the cartoonish and couture, it evokes nothing so much as what would have been had Grace Coddington styled Nancy Drew instead of Vogue. Moreover, it holds a deeper pathos than its highly stylized lines might at first suggest - its emotionality especially evident in the painter's decision to depict a taut formation of vines and fronds sprouting from the sitter's head. In an unnatural merger with the luxuriant landscape that decorates her, her body is haunted by its debt to nature. Although the sitter's glamorous severity resembles that of Gatti-Hernandez's fiancée, her deliquescence into nature points to his cousin's death.

The chronology of Gatti-Hernandez's current body of work both begins and ends with the depiction of unpopulated landscapes. Colliding an august romanticism evocative of Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Bierstadt with a campy, illustrative verve, Maid of Mettle (2010) offers an inventive salvo. Saturated with murky resonance, the painting leads the eye beyond a moonlit diving platform and out towards a stream of kaleidoscopically-hued lightning forked into the darkness of a lake's distance. The works reach their terminus in the rigorously controlled painterly dynamics of May this be Love (2010), a tightly-cropped and dramatically foreshortened composition dominated by a rose-hued waterfall crashing into a river's whitewater. Appropriate to the series' closure, the artist revels here in the controlled agitation of frothy splatters and turbulent washes signaling release. Registering liminality equally in its subject matter and its execution, the painting presents an inextricable dichotomy signaling both an end and a new beginning. Despite his unsettling facility in probing the darkness of our present moment, Gatti-Hernandez's own future appears very bright indeed.


The writer, Alex Ross, is a critic and curator based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has written regularly for THE MagazineVisual Art Source, and The Huffington Post, and his essays have appeared in several exhibition catalogues. He has spoken on art criticism and curatorial practices at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design as well as SITE Santa Fe. He is currently director of LewAllen Projects.

The mentor, Alexi Worth, is a painter who has written about art for The New YorkerArtforumARTnews,SlateBombT Magazine and other publications. He is represented by DC Moore Gallery.