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José Lerma
Ut Queant Laxis
August 14 – September 11, 2021

Nino Mier Gallery is pleased to announce Ut Queant Laxis, José Lerma’s first solo show with the gallery.  The exhibition, comprised of twelve abstract portraits made in acrylic paint on burlap, will run from August 14 to September 18, 2021.

Based in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Chicago, José Lerma is a multimedia artist who works primarily in portraiture.  Until recently, Lerma’s work was most responsive to not only the social and material conditions of the cities he inhabited, but also to the works of art put on display by their institutions.  He described his practice as akin to that of a landscape painter, turning his eye into a sieve able to distill and record telling details about worlds physically proximate to him.  Of particular interest to Lerma is how artistic representation produces social and political power.  But quarantine and his resultant move to San Juan stripped him of his ability to frequent and fraternize in public spaces.  The paintings in Ut Queant Laxis are therefore a product of isolation, wherein his erstwhile site-specificity has been replaced with an invigorated exploration of medium-specificity.

Ut Queant Laxis, the medieval Gregorian chant to St. John that lends this show its title, ascends a musical hexachord using words that we now employ for a major scale: Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La.  This hymn helped define and formalize the relationship between words and intervals in contemporary musical vernacular, thus laying the groundwork for how we understand the basic structure of music.  Lerma’s suite of 2021 paintings offers a similar pursuit of the fundamental elements of figural painting.  These canvases are composed of monochromatic, textured backgrounds upon which thick, striated layers of fleshy, color-blocked acrylic paint stretch and coagulate harmoniously.  Each color section appears as though it were applied in one or two strokes and remains sharply delineated from the others.  Tere (2021), for instance, represents a long-haired figure in five color blocks, while Full Ana (2021) does so in eight.  Typically, when artists use such a method of reduction, they do so to signify visual obstruction, as when a person is represented as far in the background of a painted scene, covered by a haze, or in motion. Lerma’s current work, however, centers such normally peripheral figures, and thus also the formal technique used to represent them.

The distillation of form to the basic elements of texture, color, and line open Lerma’s portraits to a fascinating investigation of medium, and specifically of how painting can disorient a viewer’s sense of scale.  The figures in Ut Queant Laxis, stripped of a broader context or situation, become more landscape than individual, an effect that deepens the longer one looks at them.  We understand the yellow mass of paint in Clara (2021)  to be a woman’s hair in a bun, but it is also a series of parallel, curved lines, whose peaks lift prominently off the canvas like mountain ridges.  In moments like this one, the viewer is made to feel shrunken before an intricate geography.  Take a step back and reorient to regard the figure in full, and one confronts what seems to be a small, impressionistic section of a larger painting blown out of proportion.  Lerma’s choice to paint on burlap emphasizes this play with scale, as we see the texture and detail of the painted surface with unusual clarity.  What might first seem like an aesthetic of the elemental, then, here becomes an aesthetic of scalar complexity.

Lerma’s compositions also engage the viewer’s body through their material excess.  The three-dimensional buildup of paint in and around the stroke marks seems bloated and corpulent, forming bulges, bumps, and fine lines that are so textural they almost beckon to be touched.  The thick, heavy impasto of his color blocking has the same sense of gooey moldability that makes Play-Doh such a satisfying childhood craft.  Painting – especially portraiture – is commonly described as ‘visually delectable’.  For Lerma, though, it is also seductively haptic.

The pleasures of Lerma’s recent portraits are also their scarcities: of gesture and of compositional density, but also of interiority.  For a genre so frequently focused on emotionality and the expressive potentials of the face, Lerma’s portraits are resolutely psychologically abstruse.  He frames his figures either straight-on or in profile, as though they were sitting for passport photos or mugshots.  The standardized format of such photographs, a straight face centered on a blank wall, forefronts the sitter’s identity as a state subject by denying him or her any immediate sense of individualized expression.  But Lerma’s concern in this body of work is not with citizenship, it is with medium.  Perhaps there is something goofy about the swirling pinks that make up the face of Señorito (2021), or maybe there is something surreptitious about Impersonator (2021).  But such aesthetic responses are brought on by the viewer’s own psychology and relationship to form, as neither paintings represent the subjectivity of an individual, only shapes that summon us.  

José Lerma (b. 1971) is currently an Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has taught since 2009.  He has had over twenty solo exhibitions at galleries such as Kavi Gupta in Chicago, IL (2020, 2017, 2014), Galerie Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, NY (2014, 2010, 2006, 2004), and at museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2014), and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (2013)    His works are represented in numerous collections, including The Saatchi Collection in London,  the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,  and the Whitney Museum of American Art.