Visual Arts

Fausto Fernandez's "The Virtue of Wisdom" Fails to Accurately Depict the Artist's Work

I have to say that photographs of the paintings of Fausto Fernandez, now on display in "The Virtue of Wisdom" at Gebert Contemporary on Scottsdale's Main Street, really do not accurately depict them. You have to see the paintings in the flesh, so to speak, in order to get any sense of what the works are really like.

In person, one discovers that many of Fernandez's canvases are overwhelmingly enormous, one measuring a whopping 8 by 14 feet — the perfect finishing touch for an upscale corporate conference room or the lobby of a hip hotel. One also discovers that these are not actually paintings, but rather "collage paintings" or "paintings with paper," as the artist himself labels them.

And, face to face with Fernandez's work, one quickly determines that, beneath a razor-thin veneer of what masquerades as conceptual content, there isn't much else to be discovered.

The artist behind these multi-layered canvases earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design and painting from the University of Texas at El Paso in 2001. Fernandez claims in a written artist statement that his "work is based on his curiosity of the relationships between people in society and how these relationships impact his personality and life experiences," though the paintings in the Gebert show certainly fail to venture into the territory of the patently personal, emotional, or experiential.

A Mexican American who spent his first 25 years in Mexico, the artist attended high school in the cartel-ravaged city of Juárez. Fernandez seems to have eschewed the notion of incorporating any traces of his cultural or idiosyncratic history into his most recent work. Instead, he has embraced a vanilla-tinged universality easily accessible to all and guaranteed to offend absolutely none.

Mechanical objects (many related to aviation) in 3-D schematic form, hand tools (shades of Jim Dine) and pipe fittings, all of which are usually rendered in black and white, appear frequently in the foreground of Fernandez's canvases. As if to alert us to the fact that, in contrast to manmade objects, organic forms breathe life, the artist creates layered backdrops with color and competing patterns, frequently within the confining boundaries of geometric shapes. Fernandez's combination of techniques, styles, and media — Victorian-style cabbage rose wallpaper, maps, sewing instructions, technical specs, stenciled lace and leaf patterns crafted from tar and acrylic — owe an obvious debt to German artist Sigmar Polke.

Polke thoroughly mystified art audiences in the 1970s and '80s by riotously mixing, layering, and reworking found objects, patterns, and his own drawings, sketches, and paintings into chaotic visual punches on canvas. All these unrelated elements he glued together with sarcasm, humor, irony, and a profound sense of tragedy. Though many of Fernandez's paintings in this show bear Polke's stylistic fingerprints, these works are conspicuously devoid of any of the uncomfortable realities or philosophical conundrums that Polke pushed us to experience.

Some of Fernandez's paintings, including Application of Force in a Single Movement (2009) and The Mechanics of Airborne Maneuvers (2010), also borrow from the figurative vocabulary of Robert Longo's 1980s series "Men in the Cities." Inspired by a movie in which a man gets shot and dies, Longo sought to capture "that moment between dying and dancing" in black and white paintings that featured men in suits and women in office attire writhing/punk dancing against stark white backgrounds. Unfortunately, the silhouetted figures in Fernandez's paintings have none of the anguished torment or chaotic gestures of punk dancing suggested by Longo's figures, coming off more like striped escapees from an old iPod commercial.

This is not to say that Fausto Fernandez isn't technically accomplished. But it's pretty obvious that form definitely trumps subject matter in these paintings. It may very well be that the artist's graphic design aesthetic — crisp, ordered, and controlled — muscles into the picture too much, pushing conceptual concerns into the corner and getting in the way of his exploring "how [social] relationships impact his personality and life experiences."

Fernandez is teetering close to the edge of the deeply decorative in these paintings. At this point, we can only hope that he doesn't fall into the abyss.

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Kathleen Vanesian