THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Luis Martin / The Art Engineer
In an empty gallery, on the third floor of a still emptier building in the West Village of New York City, hangs in situ “Problem Areas,” the first solo show by Nevada native and New York-based artist Paul Moreno. The artist and the curators at The Bureau of General Services—Queer Division brazenly tempted fate by not only agreeing on the ominous title for the show, but also by scheduling the opening for Friday the 13th of March 2020. As the last nail went in and the last painting was hung on the pristine white gallery wall. New York City, while still ahead of the country, was trying to catch up with the rest of the world as it started to slowly shut down. A season later, the show is still holding court to an empty room—a room whose walls could tell their own stories to rival the narratives playing out in the wooden panels on view. The gallery hosting this exhibit is housed at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York, home of Keith Haring’s masterpiece bathroom mural Once Upon A Time. In this very building, countless other quotidian queer moments became legend. What becomes of art that is fossilized by social distance, historic civil unrest and awakening? If an artist captures personal catharsis in paint and their very existence is a victory of its own, can the artist and his work too evolve into legend if there is no one there to see it?
Looking at the work of Paul Moreno is like using the dismantling of structuralism in queer theory to design and decorate the interior of a tender wet dream. Pastel colors are juxtaposed and reflect on hazy surfaces that are not fully there but present enough to suggest meaning. The painted figures in the show manifest as subject, memory, ghost, and fantasy. The all-male cast are made all more significant against the layered and textured surfaces of muted backgrounds with vivid punches of bright jubilant forms. There is an importance given to objects; they demand inspection for possible secrets or perhaps to trigger memories to come into focus.
Not shy, a mixed media work on collaged paper, depicts a pair of worn shorts. The painting frames the staple garment with balanced space on all sides. While this could have been an objective study, every element about this work is activated. The shorts themselves are composed of folds that seem to remember and long for the limbs that once wore them. The empty space around the wrinkled cloth captures a murky light that is tender and opaque. Much like Not shy, the breath of this exhibition is very much composed of a longing for the queer male as an experience of poetry with an array of idiosyncratic object d’art in their orbit. The show is also peppered with works that can loosely be described as vivid still lifes, ebbing and flowing into focus.
I like to think that right now, Moreno’s paintings are like the enchanted portraits at Hogwarts, chitchatting with each other from their painted grottos and prosceniums. The works in the show are paintings and works on paper from 2016 to 2020 BC19 (before COVID-19). While the paintings were not executed as a political or revolutionary act, the world has shifted and with it, the context of the artist’s practice has also pivoted, without any effort of the artist himself. As the work of a Queer Chicano and devout Catholic, the exhibition “Problem Areas” is now fodder for a critical inspection through a charged BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) lens. As a BIPOC, Queer, Chicano artist myself, I can’t help but approach Moreno’s work looking for connection and a less-than-subtle desperate need for reflection. Post COVID, post George Floyd, and in the midst of Trumpian fascism, “white supremacy” in our culture has been uncloaked as not only limited to the extremes of white hooded monsters next to burning crosses but also ever present and parasitically rooted in every structural aspect of our culture. The lack of representation in galleries, museums and cultural organization’s boardrooms is finally diagnosed and labeled.
Looking at Paul Moreno’s work does not stir echoes of the Chicano experience or offer me a moment of brown reflection. Should it? Should every shoulder lug the struggles and histories of their people, in every painted stroke? Is it the artist’s job alone to create movements that then become hashtags, to then become trending memes? Is that the singular duty of every artists of color—to recapitulate glib symbols of a prescribed experience? I don’t think so. In my search for the BIPOC sensibility, I do, however, find revolutionary acts by the brown hands that painted these works. There is a kind of cultural mutiny that this artist commits in allowing himself the space to ruminate, to create, to paint, and to feel, regardless of the imposed structures of power and oppression on artists of color.
Looking at the art or, more specifically, at an image of a painting online, allows the viewer several points of entry into the work. Looking at A rest before the rest on my computer screen allows me to take an instant leap and make connection between the painting and that of 18th century Mexican “retablo” paintings without the context of scale. Retablos are devotional paintings that get their name from the Spanish word for “board.” Unlike retablos, usually painted on a paper size sheets of tin, A rest is painted on a 4-foot by 4-foot wooden panel. The genre of retablos depicted a prayer being asked or the retelling in gratitude of prayer answered by the divine, usually by La Virgen de Guadalupe. These scenes are always painted in a one-point perspective and play out much like a one act stage play. In A rest, we see a languid figure in the process of fading into oblivion. The singular figure is surrounded by objects, proxies of queer masculinity. In the foreground we find sneakers next to a small composition of yellow markings that could allude to a basketball net, further drawing on masculine ambiguity. At the center of a table in the foreground lay a pair of popper bottles, standing in formation ready to perform, but the figure is flaccid and uninterested. Not even the book he was reading has engaged him enough to keep him present. What miracle is the artist witnessing or petitioning for in this neo-retablo? Is it to rid of past lover’s ghosts or an attempt to take a snapshot of a fleeting affair?
Moreno takes a similar approach in composition and flat narrative in Construct is over, a painting from 2016 of the same size and substrate as A rest. If A rest was a prayer for emotional closure, this painting is a jovial documentation of a life lived. Objects are strewn about in the painting with an urgency of someone taking notes and committing a passing scene to memory, a foreign notion to anyone with a smartphone in their pocket. The central figure is offset to the right half of the painting as if he is just as important as the objects loosely rendered in the scene. Moreno describes his process of painting and his relationship with his substrate as that of making time, of wearing and layering the material to perhaps track and keep moments from altogether passing. There is a vulnerability in the lone figure, palm waving the viewer next to his lap dog with what seems to be a random list of his possessions set out to be explored and lovingly scrutinized.
Experiencing the exhibition “Problem Areas” from its gallery checklist allowed me to make quick visual connections in its forms and colors and become at once familiar with the artist’s sensibility. Coming to the art from a relaxed perspective, unhampered by the context of a gallery setting, allows the experience to be like leafing through the index of a poetry book—each title an invitation to enter a conceptual space and to be at once immersed and swept away by vivid colors and figures who undulate between fog and form. In the case of Paul Moreno’s works, his revolutionary act is to have the emotional fortitude to create space to explore vulnerability and make an art of simply experiencing the human condition through an art practice where intensity is given to the expression of feeling and ideas.
If identify is based on reality, what is the role of the artist but to construct space in which to activate the void of our present experience? Standing at a distance from each other and looking at art from a computer screen with the ardent lens of the present leaves little room to imagine what a new paradigm can look like for society or in art. When quarantine began, I imagined the men and women of Wall Street someday returning to their offices, only to be confronted and ousted by their neglected office plants, now overgrown in the midst of a revolutionary spring of their own. I hope to be one of the first viewers at the opening of “Problem Areas” to take in the fermentation of ideas and face my own reflections of past and future wet dreams patiently waiting to become legendary.
Luis Martin / The Art Engineer is a collage artist, and host of the podcast “Studio Confessions: the art podcast.” His self appointed title has given Martin creative license to address curiosity and inquiry through his practices that include visual art, curating and writing. The artist’s prolific approach merges the “hustler’s” essence of his home base, New York City while keeping tuned in and inspired with his native California soul.
See more of Paul Moreno’s work on his website: http://www.paulmoreno.work/
Follow the artist on Instagram: @bathedinafterthought
Listen to Luis Martin’s podcast “Studio Confessions” on Apple Podcasts or visit StudioConfessions.com
Follow the author on Instagram: @artengineer
Paul Moreno, Not Shy, 2017. Mixed media on collaged paper, 7 3⁄4” x 8 1⁄2”. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Paul Moreno, A rest before the rest. 2016. Mixed media on wood, 48 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Paul Moreno, Constructs is over. 2016. Mixed media on wood, 48 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Paul Moreno, Ignatius (for a friend), 2020. Mixed media on wood, 18" x 23”.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
Paul Moreno, Mano poderosa. 2020. Mixed media on wood, 20" x 29”.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
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