Art Seen: Chicago

JOSÉ LERMA // GLORIOSA SUPERBA

by Stephanie Cristello

Fighting the War From Both Sides

Conspiracy is often faithfully followed by the term theory. It is a type of narrative that lends itself to the unknowable; founded on conjecture and speculation, on estimations of the factual that cannot be proven or disproven, existing forever in a state of both reality and fiction. Though, as a word that so often attaches itself to the indeterminable definition of theory, conspiracy is a term that perpetually surrenders its factual possibilities. The potential for truth is always eliminated at the sight of the word. But what if the fiction implied was not in opposition to truth? What if the conspiracy immediately admitted its own invention? In his current exhibition, Gloriosa Superba at Kavi Gupta, the conspiracy José Lerma depicts does not theorize, but imagines. There is a distinction in the texture, the affect, of these two systems; one travels toward truth from rumor, the other travels from truth into the unknown. Almost out of necessity, the collection of paintings on view confound the probability of falsehood onto the narrative at hand, embracing the fictive and deceptive nature within the task of representing lives of historical figures – specifically the infamous legacy of the wealth distribution in the Rothschild family.

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Installation view: José Lerma, Gloriosa Superba, Kavi Gupta, 2014.

Like much of Lerma’s past work, this new collection of paintings hinge on their decorative and ornamental elements; the image is often buried by its depiction, reduced to formal elements of color, pattern, and gesture. That being said, a representational likeness to the subject is never Lerma’s goal. “The family has historically been careful to disclose as little as possible, so while they do convey the physical traits of their subjects, there is no psychology,” says Lerma. “[The portraits] are instruments of exchange, of physical absorption and reflection…they are impersonal.” The stylistic distance between the subject itself and the way it is painted is meant to disarm, to enchant, and eventually, to question the significance of the figures supposedly portrayed. The paintings, much like the subjects themselves, rely on the conceit that the deception within the descriptive liberties of the paint application is also part of their allure. Six paintings total hang on the walls of Kavi Gupta’s Washington location; each features the silhouette of a portrait painted on mirror, done in a singular color palette that coordinates with the color wheel – indigo, violet, blue, green, yellow, etc., moving clockwise – met with various gestural marks of lines, scribbles, and hash tags on the layer nearest to the surface in brash, neon brushwork.

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Installation view: José Lerma, Gloriosa Superba, Kavi Gupta, 2014.

We are told this collection of paintings represents the patriarchal members of the Rothschild family – Amschel, Salomon, Nathan, Carl, James, and Mayer Amschel – who were famed for their international banking dynasty, founded on what would now be considered insider trading. The title of the exhibition is also a reference to the namesake of the plant species named after the Rothschilds, the Gloriosa Superba Rothschilinda, a genus of vine that climbs by attaching itself the flower that preceded it, similarly mimicking the distribution of money within the family. The main conceit of the installation cites two genres and trajectories on view – first, of the portrait, and second, of the still life or landscape painting tradition. Using the plant as a central metaphor, the installation is meant to elicit a type of contamination, or one could just as easily say germination, of the palette within the portraits by infecting the surface of the mirror with a different portion of the color wheel installed in the rectangular space. Yet, the inconsistencies are also scrawled on the surfaces of the paintings themselves – they contaminate their own color, just as they spread their own hues onto others’ reflections; a treatment of color and form that is at once unwanted and welcomed – like ceremonial weeds.

An overtly cartooned depiction of a column resides on a pillar near the center rear of the gallery space. In a walkthrough of the space, Lerma recalls the alleged rumor that led to a large portion of the family’s wealth. Positioned by the father, each of the sons took up posts around the world, globally connected with a number of Rothschild family agents to report the progress of opposing powers. One of the sons, Nathan, was known for standing against the “Rothschild Pillar” releasing “silent, motionless, implacable cunning” at the London Stock Exchange. During the Battle of Waterloo, he made his speculations on the victor to win a fortune – posturing that Napoleon had won. He had in fact been crushed; Waterloo was lost. Stocks sold like wildfire. Seconds before the real news broke, Nathan bought a giant parcel for almost nothing, amassing an incredible amount of valuable stocks for cheap, immediately inflated by the actual victory. Years of savings and wealth were eliminated by the engineered panic, won instead by the family. The metaphor of everything at stake begins to spill over into Lerma’s line between representation and abstraction – using rumor as a method to picture fighting the war from both sides, but in painting. In Lerma’s words, the rumors that surround the Rothschilds “are morality tales after all, and the distraction is there for a reason.”

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A Critical Analysis of Central Banks and Fractional- Reserve Banking from the Austrian School Perspective, 2014. Acrylic and pigmented silicone on wood, carpet, lights. 11′ x 22′ x 21′ x 12′

An attitude of amusement abounds in the exhibition. This funhouse aesthetic, of mirrors, neon, black light, and illusionistic space, interacts with the viewer as much as it interacts with itself. However, the false representations and artificial reflections always betray their own illusion. In a purposefully pretentious titled installation, A Critical Analysis of Central Banks and Fractional-Reserve Banking from the Austrian School Perspective, a 10% slice of the built-out space is mirrored on either side, seamlessly appearing as a kaleidoscopic fountain in reproductions. The memorialization Lerma awards to this family, just as he represents painting’s trajectory from representation to formlessness, is instead remembered in the artificial real, a monument of deception and ruse you can look at and imagine, but never experience in the round.

“The work is about financiers and pie charts – with such un-sexy subject matter, I can be forgiven for embracing spectacle in some form,” says Lerma. “The fact that, as an audience, what we end up embracing are the illusionistic effects is indicative of how we got to this situation, in the first place.”

 

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José Lerma, Gloriosa Superba, runs at Kavi Gupta through May 17, 2014.

Stephanie Cristello is a Staff Writer for ArtSlant and the Chicago Contributor for New American Paintings.

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