Studio Visit: Salomon Huerta, Transcendent Identity
“I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.’” ~Philip Guston
By Gary Brewer
How does one create an image that is free from their personal history – that transcends the individual and creates an iconic image that is psychologically engaging, and in whose neutrality it becomes universal? It is a vehicle that allows a viewer the freedom to come to their own interpretation and add their personal narrative to it. They are ciphers of the human condition rendered in a strange other world, where the emptiness of the imagery suggests Lao Tzu’s parable about the empty vase: “Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful.”
Salomon Huerta’s paintings are vessels – which he discovers through a complex psychological journey of discovery. He takes great pains and time to ferret out an idea that allows him to be completely present in the creation of the work, while being free of his personal history. He leaves the baggage at the door when he embarks on these transcendent journeys and seeks to create images that stand outside of the particular and become universal symbols of the human condition. He is an investigator into the capacity of an image to be depersonalized and become open and universal to interpretation.
It is through a multi-tiered process that he purges himself of his identity and creates images that act as a jumping off point for the subjects that he is drawn to paint. By freeing his opinions, personal experience and identification from the images, Salomon analytically deconstructs them and finds poetic spaces into the imagination, where the subject can insinuate itself into one’s consciousness and elicit a response.
There is a slight allegiance to Rene Magritte whose deadpan renditions of objects juxtaposed in surrealist non-sequiturs, add a psychological resonance to the narrative dislocation. A giant apple filling an otherwise ordinary room by Magritte has an uncanny power.
In Salomon’s painting of a gun on a tabletop, lying beside a glass of milk – there is a disarming collision between the psychological charge of the gun and the comfort and reassuring demeanor of a glass of milk on a bedside table. Or in a portrait of the back of someone’s shaved head meticulously painted against a pink field of color. It has a power and presence to the form, though the face has been obscured and none of the features that would identify it as a formal portrait are contained in the image; it creates an oblique dislocation that stirs a mysterious reverie tinged with a slightly menacing quality. Each image asserts a powerful force, but the approach is carefully calibrated to strategically avoid easy identification; the impersonal adding a strange emotional dislocation that brings a fresh energy and focus to the work.
Salomon described his methodology to me, a fascinating psychological search and destroy journey in order to arrive at the rarified mental space necessary to realize his potent, compact, images of form and feeling. “It takes me a long time to discover my image. I started my ‘Gun” paintings several years ago. I painted an image of a gun and let it sit around looking at it with a casual eye until I could feel the direction it might take. When I am ready I just start painting the image not sure of what or how to make it: that is the first stage. The next day I look at it and can see what it is wrong with it. Then, with respect and thoughtfulness, I destroy it. Not in anger; but with a cool respectful mind. If you destroy a painting with anger you hang onto to the mistakes, the wrong choices that you made. If you do it with respect, you leave all of that behind and are free to move forward in a clear state of mind. In the next stage, I paint in an angry, emotionally excited state of mind. It is full of this agitated energy. Again, the next day I look at it carefully, see what is wrong with it, and then again with clarity and respect I destroy it. In the third stage I am filled with fear; I create another version filled with fear and doubt, and the next day I look at it carefully and then destroy it. Now in the fourth stage I have left everything behind; my uncertainty, anger and fear have been destroyed. In the fourth stage I have a presence and mental clarity that allows me to be fully present in the creation of the image. It is almost like a form of enlightenment within my practice as an artist; a state of clarity where the painting is free from my ego and my personal history, and can be this pure open image.”
There is an uncanny quality to his paintings. I remember clearly the first time that I saw Salomon’s work at an exhibit at SFMOMA, many years ago. It was a series of the small paintings of the back of men’s shaved heads: there was a strange mix of delicacy and refinement; the almost sweet colors, pinks and pale greens of the backgrounds juxtaposed with the slightly severe quality of the shaved head, had a disarming psychological impact. It had an immediate gestalt; the image penetrated your psyche and fixed itself in your memory. They had a clarity and strangeness – without any particularities to guide your interpretation or give you an easy narrative. He also had several small paintings of Los Angeles bungalow-style homes, also painted in sweet colors with a precisionist hand, almost hard-edged but clearly the hand could be seen and felt. Their banality gave them a deadpan universality with a wry sense of humor winking at you. Those two images together created a stage set in one’s imagination, loaded with an urban intensity that radiated from the small immaculate works.
Salomon used certain mediums to create the early, highly refined works. He found that those mediums ended up making him sick and he had to change his materials and, as a consequence; his style of painting. He taught himself how to loosen up and use oil paint in a bolder more direct approach. The paintings of the guns have a juicy quality; the paint applied in lush brushstrokes, still clean and clear but looser, with the presence of oil paint adding a warmth and immediacy; the artists certain hand expressing a confidence in describing each object in clear bold strokes. For the series of boxers, the paint is applied in looser, more jagged, expressive passages of paint to add to the theater of pain and punishment the boxers body endures, we spoke a bit of Orozco, whom we both love and Salomon mentioned that a little of his emotive energy is in these works.
Salomon is currently working on a series of bloodied and battered portraits of boxers. He is in the early stages of development, making watercolors and a few paintings beginning his complex method of image purification. He spoke to me about what he is thinking of in these works. “ I am creating these paintings of boxers to represent the violence against black men in our society. It is still in the early stages, but I am finding my way making watercolors, looking for the image that captures something that I can develop. It is about violence in general as well; people are drawn to violence – they want to watch it.” It was fascinating to speak with him about these works – nothing is undisciplined or random in Salomon’s approach. He uses each device that painting has to offer as a vehicle to locate and define an image in ways that he discovers through rigorous discipline.
Painting is a strange art. Technique creates states of consciousness in the viewer. It is the most surrealist of mediums in that the same general image can move the matter of consciousness and emotional interpretation into unique encapsulated universes of feeling and meaning.
Salomon Huerta’s paintings are deeply invested with the artist’s unique approach to image discovery. He abandons ‘self’ in order to have the images arise like a dream fragment – something disarming and obscure haunts these works. It is the nonchalance with which the impact of the image penetrate one’s consciousness – that leaves a strange trace of magic. It is a form of magical realism rendered in a noirish tone, but in a stage set that exists outside of time and place. The immaculate images are resonant – pregnant with meaning but silent, they let the roar of your imagination fill the scene with sound and fury.
Salomon will be in a group show this fall at MACO, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca