Seattle P-I, January 19, 2007
Fernandez’s homage to ‘Man’ is envy without the bitterness
Envy is as good an inspiration for art as any other. Anywhere a standard of excellence is set, grudge and longing can seep in. Envy isn’t ugly though. It isn’t the flip side of beauty; it’s part of the measure of beauty, and for some incurring it is even part of the achievement.
Carlee Fernandez, the Los Angeles-based artist whose work is now on view at Platform Gallery, tackles – or perhaps it’s more of a hip-check – the permutations of envy with her latest suite of work “Man.” She writes in her artist statement that she has always admired and envied men and pays homage to her heroes and influences through video, photography and sculpture.
Hers isn’t the green-eyed monster version of the impulse, nor is it a Freudian trick pony. It is distilled longing; the strain of emotion that measures the distance between its object and one’s self.
Her previous work “Still Lifes,” a brood of taxidermic animal sculptures with surreal touches, and “Bear Studies,” a series of self-portrait nudes with the artist donning bear skins and even a bear head, have exploded interior spaces – literally the hollowed body cavities of dead animals.
This latest work is about an interior struggle: her dealings with and influences from men. This is land-mine territory in much art made by women, as explored in painter Sue Williams’ early, explosive work or by Ana Mendieta and Adrian Piper in often startling documented performances. Here, Fernandez takes a lighter tact, with humor foregrounded, but a strand of longing is present in all the work.
The impetus for “Man” was a black-and-white photograph of the artist’s father at 19. In “Self Portait: Portrait of My Father Manuel Fernandez,” she re-creates the photo with herself standing in for her young father in a diptych that puts them side by side with macho confidence – legs apart, hands in pockets – against a barren Southern California landscape. Fernandez mimics her father’s clothes. The only difference between their appearances is his mustache, which the artist forgoes imitating. This isn’t a drag-king moment, but a genuine moment full of reverence.
Starting with her father, the artist created a series of self-portraits, photographing herself with the images of Franz West, Charles Bukowski, Werner Herzog and Lars von Trier. It has some of the hallmarks of Piper’s clever cross-dressing but the role-playing her isn’t about crossing over so much as standing beside, lying next to and, in one photograph, under, the artist’s male influencers. It’s funny and discomforting; the usual feminist tactics are flipped. Homage is truly homage in these works, even at the temporary relinquishment of one’s autonomy.
Not that Fernandez disappears. Her subject isn’t maleness per se; it’s her relationship to maleness. She repictures the heroic and situates her envy in response to it. Hers isn’t a one-dimensional view of men and machismo, but a comples associative web with narrative implications.
The sculptures series, titles “Portrait of My Dad, As Franz West, As Me,” includes four amethyst pieces and another made of finger sea sponge, African fabric and a tree branch. They reference her previous work and her father’s career as a geologist, becoming personal with out being hermetic. They also demonstrate the shell game of identity, the sleight of hand between genealogy and influence, that makes an individual who she is. And just as often, breeds envy.