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One of the most immediately conspicuous paintings in Raul Guerrero’s summer show at David Kordansky Gallery was also an anomaly. Hot Dog: The Weinerschnitzel (2006) was the only depiction of food in the exhibition, and the painting in a show of 26 works that veered closest to photorealism. It pictures a hot dog, blown up far beyond life-size in a white cardboard box, with looping, thick mustard applied to vaguely resemble eyes and a nose, while pieces of chopped onion—so sharp and defined they look like cascading shards of ice—stood in for the mouth. The fact that the exhibition, titled Fata Morgana (an Italian phrase referring to a mirage on the horizon), included such anomalies—paintings that seemed like worlds unto themselves—is part of what made it so delightful. The paintings, though always figurative, moved from looseness to complex precision in a way that made agility seem synonymous with pleasure.
The themes that ran through the work—settler colonialism, revisionist history, cinematic myth-making, and mythopoetics more generally—have been recurrent across Guerrero’s work for the half-century he has been an exhibiting painter. And yet, as is so often the case when an artist’s work suddenly appears at impressive scale in a space with blue-chip sleekness, it feels as though we are being asked to look at it all differently, to assess the artist’s position in the art world’s self-made mythologies. The timing of Fata Morgana—amidst a volley of claims about figuration’s relevance or lack thereof, and a slow turn in Los Angeles toward recognizing the abundance of under-acknowledged conceptual figuration in recent history, much of it from artists of color who have been here all along—lends the show an almost meta feel. The work parodies mythologies and reductive narratives in a way that makes art historical angling seem especially beside the point.
As is frequently the trajectory when a lesser-known artist with a long career begins to get their due, Guerrero’s Kordansky show comes on the heels of a rush of smaller exhibitions at grassroots spaces: shows at artist-run POTTS and Ortuzar Projects (both 2018) were followed by a small exhibition at the more well-heeled Kayne Griffin (2020) (which is right across the street from Kordansky), and a two-person show at Marc Selwyn Fine Art (2021). I am fascinated by, and write disproportionately often, about artists who are under-acclaimed until, very quickly, they are not. This rapid transition occurs in part because many of these artists, in Los Angeles at least, began working in the 1950s–1970s and took an approach nonconformist enough to stay on the fringes at a moment when experimentation was rampant and rents were still cheap enough to make risk-taking worthwhile. But I am also fascinated by the questions that this phenomenon of delayed recognition raises: What biases and narrow-imagining permitted the downplaying of the work of an artist who was there all along? What were they doing that didn’t fit within the mainstream stories being told about art? It is especially gratifying to think about these questions in relation to Guerrero’s work, given the painter’s steep interest in how reductive narratives infect and limit our imaginations (consider the historical paintings he recreated with a kind of happy-go-lucky aplomb for Fata Morgana, such as Ataque de Una Diligencia [1995–2021], which highlights the absurd way in which much 19th century art romanticized historical, racist violence).
Last March, soon after artist William Leavitt officially joined the roster of Marc Selwyn Fine Art, he curated a show that paired his new work with Guerrero’s. The two artists first met in the early 1970s after both had graduated from art school (Leavitt from Claremont Graduate, Guerrero from Chouinard), and the press release cited the influence of both surrealism and conceptualism on both artists’ early work. The former freed them from traditional expectations of figuration, while the latter made painting feel like just one of many potential mediums for getting ideas across (and thus less precious). In choosing works by Guerrero to accompany his own paintings—many of which picture Southern California as a kind of theater set (windows floating with no house in sight or a chair alone in the foreground of a cityscape)—Leavitt selected those that reflected Guerrero’s “fever dream experience of growing up in a Eurocentric culture, biologically Mexican yet technically American.”1 For instance, there was the lushly painted Still Life with Sarape and Crystal Ball (2012), a riff on a northern Renaissance vanitas painting, with objects laid out across a striped sarape cloth and a comical cubist painting hovering in the background.
Both Guerrero and Leavitt have been and are still interested in fever dreams, contradictions, and breaking the fourth wall. They make paintings that demonstrate that they are painting about dreams, myths, and our relationship to imagery (not paintings about capital “P” Painting, but very much concerned with representation, of the cultural and historical kind). In this way, when they both began working and showing 50 years ago, they were of a moment with idea-driven figuration, albeit one overshadowed by the more dominant trends toward minimalism and off-canvas-conceptualism. Their kind of figuration was championed most consistently by Ceeje Gallery, an L.A. space that persisted from 1959 into the late 1960s and exhibited several artists who took a kind of conceptual approach to figurative painting: Charles Garabedian, Maxwell Hendler, Ben Sakoguchi, Marvin Harden. Leavitt and Guerrero came of age as artists only slightly later than these Ceeje artists, and Guerrero belonged to the gallery’s milieu but not its roster. Sakoguchi, like Guerrero, was interested in mythologies around Southern California’s history, and made paintings that were lighthearted, precise, and always self-conscious of their identity as pictures (for years, he used the orange crate as a template, always incorporating the crate’s logo, then using the rest of the canvas for cultural commentary, such as in his Chavez Ravine Brand (2005) which depicted the mass evictions in Chavez Ravine to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium). Garabedian and Leavitt, both of whom are white, received perhaps the most acclaim the soonest, although even Leavitt did not receive his first solo museum exhibition until his 2011 MOCA show. Guerrero, Sakoguchi, and Harden (who made strikingly minimal prints of farm animals, among other subjects) were all artists of color working in a deeply segregated city, where most galleries had few, if any, non-white artists on their rosters. Their approach to figuration also diverged at a time when the dominant West Coast narratives were moving from Light and Space toward pop, conceptualism, and performance—and the post-AbEx conversation about whether painting was dead began infecting art schools. That conversation—about painting and its death, or about how figuration became irrelevant after the ascent of abstraction (a tired perspective pushed by the likes of Clement Greenberg)—is and should be very boring. Yet its influence persists.
As figuration has never actually disappeared from contemporary art’s landscape, it’s not quite accurate to say it’s having a resurgence; but the debates about figuration, part and parcel with art discourse’s constant need to define and name trends, is certainly having a moment. Thanks to a few recent articles on “zombie figuration,” a term coined by Alex Greenberger at ARTNews and championed by Dean Kissick at The Spectator, we are once again throwing around reductive ideas about originality and progress in relation to figurative painting. In his January essay, Kissick mentioned the “lack of new ideas in art” multiple times, referring to so-called zombie figuration as “a renunciation of art’s radical avant-garde potential,”2 and peddling the notion once again that art follows a linear progression of innovation. Yet as frustrating as such thinking is, the talk of zombies spurred some compelling backlash. In Momus this spring, artist Jason Stopa brought together a panel of three fellow painters to discuss whether there was indeed a crisis in figuration. Didier William found the word crisis “hyperbolic,” but acknowledged that the buzz and frustration stemmed in part from the fact that the “very broad sort of art-historical umbrella of ‘figuration’ is inaccurate and insufficient.” He noted the way artists are “using the body…, citing history, mythology, [and] personal narrative.”3 Guerrero has likewise incorporated all of these approaches into his work over the years.
At a time when conversations about figuration are once again contentiously vacillating between the reductive and expansive, Guerrero’s work feels particularly on point—mostly because of the way it punctures notions of linear progress, both through its styles and subjects. While Fata Morgana includes multiple bodies of work, the largest, newest body was completed this year and takes the Great Plains and Black Hills of South Dakota loosely as its subject. The inspiration for this series dates back over three decades, to the early 1990s, when the artist visited South Dakota and ended up in a bar where he thought, as he told Los Angeles Times columnist Carolina Miranda, “I’m going to get killed.” He was American, of Mexican ancestry, and the men at the bar were white and rugged, like they’d emerged from the kind of movie that romanticizes Manifest Destiny, something like How the West Was Won. “I realized that everything I knew about this place was through media—movies, television,” Guerrero said.4
The paintings combine his memory of this moment in South Dakota with iconic Wild West mythologies, though Guerrero remixes the stories we’ve been told. He painted the series dry-on-dry, so that the oil paint nearly resembles chalk, relying largely on the length, width, and squiggles of the lines to convey depth and motion, a formal strategy that makes everyone look more cartoonish. In one painting, a man robs a bank, though the teller windows look like jail cells with men grasping at the metal bars (The Black Hills c. 1880s: Bank Robber – B, 2021). Another, among the most raucous in the series, depicts a bar fight; two men are at the center of the action, one wields a gun while the other awkwardly tackles him (The Black Hills c. 1880s: Bar Room Brawl, 2021). The eyes of both figures convey a kind of confusion, as if they’re not sure why they’re playing these roles in the story. This trick with the eyes is a common one across Guerrero’s more recent paintings. In Buffalo Hunt (After George Catlin) (2021)—a whimsically pastel reinterpretation of an iconic, racist Western artwork, which is not part of the Black Hills series and thus more fluid than chalky—an Indigenous hunter on horseback catapults toward a buffalo. The hunter stays in character, flatly, stereotypically depicted as wild-eyed, with his bow and arrow raised and ready. But the buffalo looks out at us, the viewers, resigned yet full of concern about being the victim in this on-canvas plotline (while the buffalo Guerrero used as his source in the Catlin painting also had sad, big eyes, Guerrero’s depiction really plays up the animal’s personality). No one escapes the clichéd narratives in these paintings, but the figures do appear to desperately want out of the endless cycle of cartoonishly-flattened histories.
Guerrero poked at some other, more local, art-specific myths in Fata Morgana as well. For years, he has been painting scenes at famous local bars, places celebrities and artists have been known to frequent. Chez Jay: Santa Monica (2006) takes a swipe at another artist who celebrated Los Angeles watering holes, Edward Kienholz. In 1965, Kienholz famously replicated the West Hollywood bar Barney’s Beanery, a notoriously bigoted and homophobic establishment that featured a “Fagots [sic] Stay Out” sign until 1945, the slur prominently misspelled for decades. Outside the installation, Kienholz included a copy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner with the visible headline, “Children Kill Children in Vietnam Riots,” but inside, he gave all the patrons clocks for heads, all set to 10:10, to emphasize that such alarming news falls away in a place like Barney’s, where time seems to stop. Guerrero’s painting, equally full of idiosyncratic detail (the red and white awning, the taxidermy fish on the wall, the whiteboard with the specials), also places clocks on patrons’ heads, each set near or around 5:35—one digital clock reads 5:34, while another seems close to 5:24 and yet another 5:50. Perhaps my reading here is overly insider-y, too premised on my latent frustration with Kienholz and all he represented, but this painting feels to me an indictment of the notion that a watering hole can be a sanctuary, where the outside world falls away and somehow patrons reach an unspoken consensus. As he does so well across many of his paintings, Guerrero acknowledges the allure of such simple myths—including those romanticizing Westward expansion, the colonization of the Southwest, and even figuration’s role in art history—while at the same time deflating them.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 26.