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Worlds in a Room 

"We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while maintaining their value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling those memories, we add to our store of dreams."

So it is with rooms, at least, according to Gaston Bachelard, the great French philosopher of home and hearth. Bedrooms, dens and garrets are sheltered spaces where private life happens. Anything intimate requires privacy, and it is only in a sheltered space that our dreams and emotions can be fully experienced. While the large scale photographs of Ernesto Pujol are ostensibly figure studies, their settings are obviously bare rooms rather than any specific locale or backdrop, and their resonance is very psychological.

Currently based in New York, Pujol grew up in Puerto Rico, where his parents emigrated from Havana. He studied painting before spending four years as a Roman Catholic monk in a cloistered abbey, and today regards himself as an installation artist rather than as a painter of photographer, per se. The large color photographs in this Conversion of Manners show at Heriard-Cimino were meant to be seen in that light. An acerbic social critic, Pujol says this exhibition of "performance photography" involving vintage religious garments "explores the impact of these garments on the body. The images present what happens to the body when it is consumed by a mystical desire and enters traditional religious space."

Whew! That's quite a thought. The figure in the photos is Pujol himself, garbed as a Roman Catholic priest or monk, and the surrounding white walls and hardwood floors lend an atmosphere of austere structure and confinement -- an appropriate environment for Pujol to conduct an ecclesiastical fashion show for the edification of the viewer. What we see is unique indeed, a kind of subdued psychodrama enacted with an odd mix of Hispanic whimsy and frosty intellectual detachment. It's occasionally almost kinky, to boot.

In Kneeling Jesuit, a black cassocked figure appears kneeling as if in prayer, facing the wall with his back to the viewer. It's a severely minimal composition, a study in pious shapes and shadows that might frighten a small child. Kneeling Carthusian is no less creepy, but here the figure is draped in a white monk's tunic with a pointed hood, giving it the look of a crouching Klansman examining the oak parquet floor for termites.

Perhaps more to the point is Penitent, which depicts a hooded figure in a straight-backed chair. Shrouded in a black, hooded tunic with a pale cord around the waist, Penitent conveys a medieval aura. At first, the cord around his waist appears to be tied to the chair. In fact, it's really not, but it still comes across like some sort of spooky ecclesiastical bondage scene. Pujol's photos first premiered in a New York show called Some Like it Hot, which had no shortage of fetishism, and while he denies that this show is anything like that, it appears that old habits die hard. Conversion of Manners is interesting for its pithy take on ecclesiastical fashion and its Hispanic Catholic surreality, sensibilities only partially undermined by its self-consciously cool intellectualism.

If Pujol, like many of Chelsea Rising artists, tries too hard to be a coolly detached reflection of postmodern theories that work better as theories than as art, a refreshing antidote to the theory virus can be found in Jim Richard's new paintings at Arthur Roger. Richard makes no attempt to conceal the fact that he's still doing essentially the same kind of work that he has done for decades. As with Pujol, it all happens in a room, but there any similarity ends.

Anything but spare, Richard's rooms contain no people, only art and furniture. Painted in a meticulously patterned pop style, they reflect not just consumer items, but accumulations of the past and present, all jumbled together. In Facing the Collection, modern sculpture shares space with antique furniture, and modern paintings occupy baroque frames in amid a jungle of paisley wallpaper. If the occupants are absent, their thoughts, dreams and memories are still present, inhabiting their home as collectibles in much the way our dreams inhabit our skulls as we are sleeping. And while this is similar to what Richard has done all along, in this show he makes it all new again, reminding us that real art comes from an inner space, a place well beyond the bounds of any analytical theory.

Conversion of Manners, photographs by Ernesto Pujol

Heriard-Cimino Gallery

440 Julia St., 525-7300

Through March

Paintings by Jim Richard

Arthur Roger Gallery

432 Julia St., 522-1999

Through March


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