Shape and form: Giovanni Garcia-Fenech’s self-portraits create waves in New York
Mexico City-born painter Giovanni Garcia-Fenech spent over a decade working in the New York art world — as the news editor for Artnet; gallery manager at the beloved, if short-lived outer-borough spaces, The Project and Roebling Hall; and finally serving as Communications Director for The Armory Show — until he made his ‘great escape’, or should we say return, to painting full time in 2010.
This past October, Garcia-Fenech was included in the inaugural group show at the buzzy Puerto Rican gallery Embajada, located in a former sex toy shop in San Juan. Now, the artist is preparing for his New York solo debut at Postmasters in Tribeca. As Garcia-Fenech jokes, ‘Leaving the art world has been the best thing I could do for my career as an artist.’
In retrospect, it certainly appears to have been a wise move. Garcia-Fenech’s painting career has been on a circuitous route since his student days at the School of Visual Arts, where he mostly made ‘obnoxious hard-edge paintings inspired by Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations and second-hand readings of post-structuralism,’ he says, adding, ‘like a big jerk.’
For many years, he pursued biomorphic abstraction — ‘post-Brice Marden stuff, just layers and gestures’ — that referenced human forms but not overtly. ‘At some point I felt that I should stop hiding it and start painting the human body,’ he says. ‘I was really burnt out with the art world and I just wanted to do something I felt would be a little more honest and a little more direct. You go to art school and learn all this stuff and it’s hard to get out of this theoretical mindset and you want people to perceive you as intelligent and knowledgeable and I realised it was making my art really boring.’
His first few attempts at self-portraiture felt ‘really embarrassing’, but Garcia-Fenech started receiving overwhelmingly positive responses from his friends. His heavy-limbed, tiny-headed doppelgängers, which sort of evoke Fernando Botero figures stuffed inside Matisse gestures, are all studies in mark-making that press up against the borders of the canvas in unique poses that tweak classical notions of perception and scale. ‘I was reading Matisse’s biography, which I admit I gave up on because I found it too boring, but one of the things I found interesting was that he loved Russian icons and medieval art and Islamic art and that’s all stuff I really look at a lot,’ says Garcia-Fenech, noting the paintings are ’really meant to be self-portraits, sometimes extremely distorted, but I really do try to get a sense of what it feels like to be myself and my discomfort with my body while trying to squeeze some grace out of it.’
That can mean a flattened balloon-like head stuck inside one half of a diptych and a tangle of disparate limbs painted at a different time in the neighboring canvas (as seen in his Corner Paintings), arachnocentric phalanges (Hand Studies), black and flesh-toned versions of himself with beanpole legs and hulking shoulders with highly articulated, if microscopic, genitalia pushing his tiny skull into contortions (Square Paintings), or similar figures negotiating what appear to be one large and one small exercise ball within the confines of a square (Two Problems).
‘I put in these circles that are drawn freehand because I wanted to complicated the paintings a little more,’ he says of this last series. ‘I call them Self-Portraits with Two Problems as a joke because they can also be seen as symbolising something that makes me really uncomfortable and forces me to bend into these uncomfortable positions.’
Garcia-Fenech established these parameters to counteract the improvisational nature of his painting. ‘Otherwise I wouldn’t know where to go, so by forcing myself to do the paintings all in one shot or touching each border at some point, that dictates a lot of the form,’ he says. ‘I just didn’t want them to be overworked and I felt if I planned them a lot they could very easily feel very slick.’
To further combat such results Garcia-Fenech works on unprimed canvas — it better mimicks the imperfections of real human skin while not forgiving mistaken brushstrokes — and he completes each painting within a single day to keep his attention laser-focused. After a recent trip with his wife to Siena, Italy, Garcia-Fenech came across 12th century shaped-canvas paintings of crucifixes which led to his new L-Shaped Paintings, six of which will be shown alongside a pair of Two Problems works at Postmasters.
‘The crucifixes definitely weren’t the best artworks we saw but they were interesting because they were made in the shape of the cross and had the body of Christ inside this shape of the cross and that’s sort of what I’m doing,’ says Garcia-Fenech, who just ordered some round stretchers for a potential new series of circular complications that may involve trees and snakes. At their best, Garcia-Fenech’s sinuous arabesques have the power to evoke all the emotions and sensations of the figures trapped inside his canvases, whatever shape(s) they may assume. ‘I want you to have a sensual experience when looking at them.’