Dead Cats

Rachel Hecker is "Sad and Pissed." And don't you fucking forget it. Hecker's gallery had suggested that "Sad and Mad" -- albeit a bit like Dr. Seuss -- might be a less incendiary choice for her show's title. Hecker resisted. Even in our expletive-filled society, profanity still retains an edge that takes it out of the realm of the civil and conveys a heightened level of feeling. It's also the way many of us talk. Hecker's group of paintings at Texas Gallery presents a pop-cultural allegory of love, loss, despair and betrayal via cartoon characters. It loosely chronicles the emotional fallout from Hecker's breakup with a longtime girlfriend who ran off with a wealthy older man.

Hecker had dealt with the subject before in a roman à clef comic for the cover of the Houston-based magazine ArtLies. But in Primary Colors fashion, Houston readers spent more time salaciously speculating on what details were based in reality, rather than considering it as artwork.

The current works are more oblique than the comic project. With an odd prescience, Hecker began the series while still enjoying domestic bliss. They began as an exercise in inserting herself emotionally into her paintings. Appropriating the Hello Kitty cartoon sidekick, Chococat, a small black kitten, and his friend, a small yellow duck, Hecker set out to explore different emotions like grief and loss. When her life underwent drastic change, the paintings became a way of working through the experience.

Hecker admits she had a prejudice against personal narrative in art. It's tough to pull off without a level of narcissism, to make art about you relevant to other people. But by "locating the discussion in the popular culture," Hecker transforms a personal experience into a surprisingly effective allegory of emotion.

The paintings are hung salon-style on opposite walls of the (now book-free) Texas Gallery. "Explosion" paintings (in the same vein as fight scene graphics from the old Batman TV show) are scattered among figurative works featuring the mute Chococat and ducky. Neither character has a mouth; instead, they become wide-eyed silent participants.

The paintings combine flatly painted cartoon images with Hecker's velvety, hyperreal airbrush. In Finding Solace in Friends (2001), Chococat, his head hanging sadly, sits leaning against a kitschy airbrushed ceramic deer. The deer seems to cock her head and listen understandingly. The vignette is set against a background of vertical stripes in melancholic grayed tones of purple, blue and green. Skillfully blending the cute, absurd and pitiful, Hecker's work pulls a bittersweet laugh/cry response.

In a comically vicious piece, an evil peg-legged plastic pirate stands with the ducky perched in one plastic hand. His other hand holds a sword displaying the kitty's skewered heart. Chococat's body lies dead, the bottoms of his paws facing the viewer. "Now we can go shopping," the text reads.

The explosion paintings are hard-edged, stylized bursts of vibrant color that crop up as pissed exclamation points. Some erupt in the center with words like "Liar!" "Bitch!" "Pig!" or "Ho!" Other wordless explosions read as a kind of wince, an indefinable burst of a jaw-clenching anger and pain.

The paintings skip from images of sadness to anger to despair to hope. The process mimics the bursts of conflicting feelings experienced by humans.

It is an incredibly tight and effective body of work, strengthened by the clustered installation. Hecker has always been skilled at appropriating pop-cultural elements for her own purposes. But in her most recent series, she has managed to invest vapidly cute Hello Kitty spin-off characters with a poignant emotional richness. That is a helluva thing to pull off.

Speaking Spanish meant you had to stand with your nose against the wall. Such was the climate for Adan Hernandez and his fellow students at San Antonio's Edgewood High School in the 1960s. Failing grades were the punishment for continuing to speak in their native language. Hernandez, who had been a straight-A student prior to his arrival at Edgewood High, dropped out and got his GED instead. His grades won him a scholarship to San Antonio College, where he studied art before leaving in frustration. Believing there were no successful Chicano artists he could identify with, Hernandez felt the art world was not an option.

He went to work -- as a laborer, a carpenter, a waiter. He continued to paint, to the chagrin of his landlords, on the walls and windows of his apartments. In 1980, at the urging of his fiancée, he began to focus on art full time. But in 1991, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) decided to use Hernandez's paintings in his film Blood In...Blood Out, a story of three cousins in East L.A., one of them an artist. As a result of the movie, Hernandez sold ten years' worth of work to various Hollywood figures, producer Oliver Stone included, with one of his paintings going for $60,000. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired two paintings for its permanent collection.

Hernandez's bio of hardship and talent could be an all-American feel-good film, except that Hernandez succeeded in spite of America, rather than because of it. Hernandez is included in "El Espejo: Arte Latino from Texas," at ArtScan Gallery/ Rudolf Projects. The collection of work (the title is Spanish for "the mirror") draws on Latino culture.

Hernandez's painting La Migra Is Zapped by Illegal Aliens (2001) is a darkly comic work. With kinetic brushwork and a lurid nocturnal luminescence, Hernandez depicts illegal aliens (pun intended) in a spaceship taking revenge on the border patrol. Lasers shoot down from the flying saucer as the federal agents scatter in this gleeful revenge fantasy.

With his own flair for the cinematic, Vincent Valdez creates chiaroscuro charcoal drawings of boxers in defeat and triumph. With a Little Luck, Faith, God...and a Six-Pack (2002) presents El Pollo, The Great, a wiry little bantam rooster of a man sporting trunks emblazoned with "Macho" on the waistband. A rooster decorates one bicep, a woman adorns the other. He squints out through swollen eyes, his hair brushed up like a cock's comb. Above him, drapes are drawn back to reveal a host of clichéd Latino images.

Another portrait drawn from sport/ spectacle is Angel Rodriguez-Diaz's El Hijo del Santo (2001). It represents a masked wrestler from the world of Lucha Libre, the WWF of Mexico. His eyes peer out from a shining gold lamé hood, his head filling the canvas with only the tops of his crossed and clenched fists visible. The hyperreal rendering and close cropping create a sense of compressed power.

Juan Ramos has Sofia's Map (2001). He creates line drawing portraits and digitally colors and inserts them into photographic "sets" of everyday scenes populated by realistically animated characters.

Delilah Montoya contributes Guadalupe en Piel, Armijo (2000), a photograph of a man's tattooed torso emblazoned with the Virgin of Guadeloupe and the Crucifixion. It's a 360-degree image, digitally unraveled and flattened, printed in black and white on transparent Mylar -- "flayed" in Aztec fashion. The photo work is a visual melding of Catholic and indigenous elements of sacrifice.

Artists such as Adan Hernandez don't have to stand with their noses against the wall anymore in the art world. But now that it is finally opening up to them, there is a new danger that their work will be segregated because of these same cultural roots. Exhibitions focused on heritage can be a substitute for including artists in a larger dialogue. Just as with Hernandez's early education, art consistently categorized solely by ethnicity can lead to a "separate but equal status" that is anything but equal.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer