The last time I saw this many pastels was at an Arkansas bridal shower. Patricia Hernandez's new paintings have the sugary colors and matte surfaces of Jordan almonds and flowery chintz, but they're about as far from Martha Stewart as you can get. "Patricia Hernandez -- phrases for painting" at James Gallery is the latest installment in the artist's exploration of figuration and abstraction. She may draw upon hues popularly considered light, happy and girlie, but she uses them subversively -- almost as a counterpoint to self-important machismo in painting. She uses them to create an intimate and engaging world, where nothing is quite as it seems. The people are not portraits, the dramatic abstract gestures are somehow restrained, and the candy colors hold no sweetness.
The figures that populate Hernandez's paintings are constructions, amiable personalities created from the stockpile of faces and body types we all carry in our subconscious. Because the images are of no one in particular (save for a likeness of her brother), they all look a little like somebody you might know. Made-up figures can tend toward stylization or an idealized elegance -- some movie star/fashion model amalgam. Not so Hernandez's work. Her figures are sympathetically flawed, painted with kindness and generosity. These pleasantly awkward figures have a relaxed self-confidence, the kind you find in family photos that capture people at ease in a private setting, rather than stiff and posed for public scrutiny. In if such moments appear unresolved, for now it doesn't matter (2001), a faint double chin appears under a woman's warm smile; a drippy, floaty shift is hung over her plump shoulders. She seems happy to see you as she is, complacently plopped on the ground of her world, slightly behind a large squiggly mauve shape.
Chairs, tables and architectural elements are absent from the paintings. The figures stand or sit in unmediated connection with the forms of their environments. Are the scrawled forms atmosphere, Rorschach blots or, it seems, entities themselves? Hernandez is interested in maintaining parity between her loosely painted figures and her gestural abstraction. The color values often carry an equal visual weight, allowing her to maintain that balance.
The combined pastels of the three paintings in the gallery's living room are overwhelming -- and the addition of Velveeta orange only ups the ante. The particularly radiating lemon-meringue yellow of something like it was here before (2001) makes you want a dimmer switch, but it's difficult to decide whether this is a positive or a negative reaction.
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In the sitting room, trickling to favor (2001) provides a cool blue-green respite. A veil of teal pigment runs over a warm buttery surface and a faint figure whose red lips part in open-mouthed delight. Things cool down even more in the gallery's dining room, where two paintings with mellow backgrounds call to mind white plaster walls worn smooth. Rationally unexpected (2001) is a portrait that looks like Hernandez's brother and Gene Wilder at the same time. (Sporting a shirt with wide horizontal prison garb stripes, he specifically looks like Wilder in Stir Crazy.) A scribbled and dribbling blob of teal blue hovers next to him. Placed side by side, they seem to be posing for a family portrait -- only one sibling has assumed the form of a jellyfish. Hernandez's brother looks to the side and smiles wryly.
The sander is Hernandez's friend; the surfaces of her paintings are wonderful. She paints and sands back and then paints again, creating a burnished matte surface that bears the residue of her actions and reveals the underlying structure of her brushstroke. Figures become faint and ghostly. The bravura strokes of a painting like to know how much of yours you are (2001) are scrubbed back down, as if preserving such a dramatic gesture would be self-indulgent. These are thoughtful, purposefully crafted works in which expression has been controlled, tempered.
A similar attitude pervades her color choices. She purposely avoids dark, dramatic or "important" colors, as if to use them would be pretentious. These are serious paintings that don't need the chromatic trappings of "seriousness."
A lot happens on Hernandez's canvases, all of it underpinned by her loving engagement with her media: painting, sanding, polishing, over and over again. The paintings, with a nudge from Hernandez's titles, hint at stories and scenarios. An ambiguous narrative is communicated via our responses to the forms and surfaces, the psychology of color and the engaging countenances of the cast of characters Hernandez has created.