Artillery December 2006
By Ezrha Jean Black

Her Father is the “Man” Among Men

“Full fathom five thy father lies, Of his bones are Coral made….”
- Shakespeare, The Tempest

There is a sense in which Carlee Fernandez’s work has always been about identity and intercourse – which is to say, there is nothing arbitrary about her sculptural interweaving and interpenetrations of animal, vegetable and mineral, material and spatial, personal and cultural. Fernandez’s work probes an intimate and continuously unfurling space between mimicry and metamorphosis, but with implications reaching far beyond their immediate subject. That said, it is an extremely personal show.

Titled simply, “Man,” the show is framed as a personal anthropology – beginning and ending with her actual father, Manuel Fernandez (to whom the show is a kind of tribute), and the idea of the Father internalized, appropriated, re-conceived, delivered and inhabited.

Walking into the gallery, you are immediately confronted by “five” free-standing sculptures (some are groups of pieces) –that look like glittering orifices clamoring to be fed, or at least admired. Each is an homage, to her father, and to another patriarch, the Austrian artist of “the five skins,” Hundertwasser; another less obvious Austrian artist, Franz West.

Fernandez’s choice and use of materials, natural and otherwise – e.g., the Black Sea fan she uses in Portrait of My Dad, As Hundertwasser, As Me – are uncanny and exquisite. The fan (or possibly two intertwined fans) hangs by its roots in a triangulated formation, a pendulum, entwined with fuchsia, lavender, orange, yellow, red and red-orange thread – subtly spanning the spectrum as they the light delicate branches’ tracery, with bulbous, mycotic bulbs at the top of the root formation.

In Portrait of My Dad, as Franz West, As Me (there are two), Fernandez uses both tree branches and finger sea sponge. The red-dotted, black-and-white stripe on black African fabric is clearly a nod to Franz West, but the sculptures are otherwise pure Fernandez – the tree branches (with papier-mâché) an armature for alternately fin- and flame-like extensions of finger sponge (wrapped in the African fabric). The antler-like extensions of the finger sponge recall previous Fernandez incarnations; but the dominant motives here are aquatic.

The balance of the works in the show are photographic, complemented with a two-minute video loop. But the images confirm her essentially sculptural approach to an array of ideas and issues about identity and male influence – primarily, of course, her father.

Self Portrait: Portrait of My Father, Manuel Fernandez, consists of twin portraits – one of Fernandez, and on of her dad, in exactly the same pose, almost the same setting. They are attired in virtually identical striped and pocketed T-shirts and jeans, similarly wide belts at their waistlines, their dark hair similarly swaged across their foreheads, legs more or less identically spread a foot or so apart at a slight angle; the father’s stance just slightly more slouched. The father is mustachioed and his mouth seemingly more firmly set, but the resemblance is remarkable. Fernandez encapsulates the ambiguity in the title in what becomes a double self-portrait, the artist ‘siring’ her father in the blurring of persona and posture, the digital/photographic ‘correction’ or conflation of the past and present. The daughter becomes father to the Man.

A series of black and white Self-Portraits (all28.5x38 in.), alternately “with” and “as”, fill a corner of the gallery. The blurring between the conjunctive and simulative is deliberate: they are all photographs “with photographs.” As if directly acknowledging the influence of sculptor-bricoleur West, Fernandez photographs herself with both a photographic portrait and a West sculpture. In one, she appears to be lying outdoors in a field beneath a photograph (possibly larger than the one before us) of an aluminized version of one of West’s slightly mysterious gauze-wrapped objects, this one resembling a baguette, itself situated in a grassy field. The artist positions herself at a slight angle beneath the print, from about the waist up, flush with the edge of the photographed sculpture, as if ‘emerging’ from the ‘cocoon’ of the West sculpture. The artist gazes insouciantly at the camera, daring the viewer to challenge her ‘self’ definition. Circumventing the notion ‘birth’ or copulation here, Fernandez uses appropriation as a means of metamorphosis. The sculpture (or the idea of the sculpture) is West’s ‘skin’ become the artist’s.

In some, she reveals her role in this process of identification more explicitly. She is fully visible in her Self-Portrait with, holding the photograph of a naked Hundertwasser as if she were cradling a doll (or a baby) – a child’s homage to a crucial influence. The metaphoric inter-relationship is reinforced in the Self Portrait as Hundertwasser’s Ship, in which she holds a photograph of the Regentag over her head – a willful transference, almost a transmigration.

The implied skeins of influence or association are not always apparent. She also photographs herself with images of Charles Bukowski, Werner Herzog and perhaps most improbably, Lars von Trier – one of the last people I would associate with Fernandez. Others are only an associative degree away (e.g. Iron Maiden’s fascinating lead man, Bruce Dickinson, and the Dutch designer Joep van Lieshout.)

Fernandez returns (ambivalently) to the earth with the five that greet the gallery visitor.

It’s an oddly innocent confrontation, this dual entrée and envoi to the show; and we may not entirely recognize its import until the end, even though we’re set up for it from her very First Boyfriend. Coming to terms with the patrimony becomes not merely an internalization or inhabitation, but a kind of evisceration here. If appropriation is a kind of “biting the hands that feeds,” Fernandez determines, in her reframed, embroidered, enveloped, and engendered ‘natural history’, to show us the hand as the artist’s own.