Salomon Huerta at Christopher Grimes Gallery

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Purple, Brown with Green
2013
Oil on canvas
48″ x 33″
Photo: courtesy Christopher Grimes Gallery

Salom&oacuten Huerta prefers to paint strangers. He appreciates the placidity of the psychic disconnect that comes with not knowing anything about his subjects. Huerta’s images have always been about bracketed ideas rather than subjects. Realism was, and remains, quite beside the point. Time was, his signature style telegraphed that conceptualist-leaning detachment, with bleached palettes and a reductivist hyper-stylization. That time is over; and these very recent, large (for Huerta), heady, impasto-ruffled oil paintings of people, places, and things get about as far away from those works as they can. Or at least, they seem to. There are even half-a-dozen portraits of a single model who is a dear friend of the artist. But while these wild and woolly works may look evocative, emotional, and gestural, they are actually engineered materialist responses to the same problems of color and space he’s always worked on.

For health reasons, Huerta forswore the toxic agents that gave his previous work its look; forcing him to basically re-learn how to paint with pure oil pigments-which means thick and fast. So while the materiality of the surface reads as passionate, that’s deceptive. The feeling of motion and organic, accrued imperfection is actually just a feature of the amped-up speed at which he is now working. In demonstration of his formal priorities, the works are most often titled by color, rather than subject. The boxers (Blue, Green with Red; Purple, Brown with Green; and simply, Red) are not figures known to Huerta personally or in sporting life. They are black men simply because the blue and green look more intense against that darker skin pigment, and not for any reason of story. The single-object still life of the gun (Gray Gesture), and the ancient, partly ruined statues (Lavender and Gray) knowingly render evocative pictures, but with the cool formalism of Morandi and his water glasses, rather than with messaging. The female model, Brenda, is featured in several works; notwithstanding her appearances as a smooth, sweet, siren, name-checked in several titles and complicit in the male gaze her portraits seem to celebrate-hers, and indeed all of these paintings, play hard-to-get. What looks like an invitation or seduction ends up being a fake-out, a teasing rake. The old style telegraphed its allegorical status through reductivism. These give mixed signals with their winsome physicality, when in truth they are as level-headed as ever.