Art on the Threshold of Visual Perception

When first encountering the art of Cuban-born painter Agustín Fernández, as I did earlier this month, it helps to keep in mind that “Looking and Understanding [are], Two Different Processes,” a title that he gave to one of his paintings in the 1960s. 

Agustín Fernández: Drawings and Collages (1960s–1980s) at Mitchell Algus Gallery highlights that philosophical divide, which exists at the root of our visual sense. Notably, the exhibition shows a restrained side to an artist whose output has been variously characterized, including by Fernández himself, as obsessive and besieged, or gloomy and gritty. One of his paintings even made it into a scene in Brian de Palma’s gloomy erotic thriller Dressed to Kill (1980). 

By contrast, the large, mostly black and white works at Mitchell Algus are built around minimalist imagery and ample negative space. This quieter register distills how Fernández’s art situates the viewer in an intoxicating limbo between seeing and knowing or, as he put it, between looking and understanding. 

In one of these enigmatic drawings, five thick, interlocking digits suggest a close-up and foreshortened view of a partly closed hand. Yet this recognition is provisional, at best; the composition may not, in fact, constitute a hand at all. Given its trapezoidal and elliptical outline, its darkly shaded pendulums resemble ventricles and valves of a human heart. But that rereading doesn’t quiet work, either. 

Agustín Fernández in New York City circa 1990 (© Agustin Fernandez Foundation)

Less invested in transparently representing reality, Fernández’s visual innuendos seduce the viewer into lingering on the threshold of visual perception. The works magnify and prolong otherwise transitory moments within the act of seeing, those seconds just before our pragmatically minded brains flatten the seen world into utilitarian and narrative terms. In Drawings and Collages, the urge to know and to name gives way to sustained looking for its own sake. Meanings radiate obliquely through internal, composite harmonies, as in Fernández’s classical manipulation of tone and shade, the tensions between abstract mass and subtle contour, and the plumes, mark making, squibs, or lines that chart invisible endpoints. 

If these works can be said to have a unifying subject, it is visual disclosure as a virtue in itself, a theme underscored by allusions to daily objects associated with exposure or unveiling, like zippers and seams, playing cards and peepholes, textile hems and pin-and-string diagrams. By turning such objects into generative motifs, Fernández consciously engages the viewer in a kind of metaphysical foreplay, taking attention to the verge of seeing more and knowing more, but ultimately leaving us to enjoy how open-ended the act of looking can be.

That enigmatic accessibility — or available mystery — evidenced in these 20 drawings and collages parallels the artist’s semi-anonymous renown, especially in the United States, where he lived and worked for over 40 years, until his death in 2006. 

In the provincially minded US, he may have been an unwitting victim of his seasoned internationalism. Born in 1928 in Cuba, Fernández graduated from that country’s San Alejandro Academy of Fine Art and spent 1948 in New York City, studying with the émigré artists George Grosz and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, two figure painters whose emphasis on the plasticity of the human form and delight in agitated and violent scenes probably impacted Fernández’s early development. As he continued his advanced studies into the 1950s, in Europe, his earliest period work tended toward boldly colored semi-abstract still-life and portraiture; eventually, and more famously, he turned to voluptuous forms and a metallic palette for semi-abstract works that explore the subliminal eroticism and brute forces that underwrite mid- and late-century post-industrial life. 

Agustín Fernández, “Woman and Pet Riding on a UFO” (1982), collage and watercolor on paper, 30 x 22 1⁄4 inches (© Agustin Fernandez Foundation; photo by Farzad Owrang)

To a Fernández newcomer like myself, he seems, at first, like a latter-day Surrealist, an association reinforced by his biography: he lived in Paris throughout the 1960s and showed regularly at Simone Collinet’s influential Galerie Fürstenberg, while surfacing in international group shows with avant-garde Latin American peers, including Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, and fellow Cubans Wifredo Lam and Emilio Sanchez. By the 1970s, Fernández had permanently established a home in New York City, working and exhibiting regularly, hiding in plain sight from the city’s often myopic art world. 

The drawings and collages at Mitchell Algus also prove that Fernández’s pedigree runs deeper than Surrealism, reaching back to the human-and-machine art pioneered by French Dadaist Francis Picabia and forward to the otherworldly realism of Italian still life master Giorgio Morandi.  A serene formalism akin to Morandi’s informs the erotic and uncanny compositions, suggesting that Fernández wants to expand our narrow conception of the real rather than mine the unconscious, or turn our backs on the ordinary world. The works imaginatively decontextualize everyday ephemera and household objects, from dime store tchotchkes to tongue depressors to hooks and brackets. 

Agustín Fernández, “Untitled” (c. 1970s), Ggaphite on paper, 24 x 20 inches (© Agustin Fernandez Foundation; photo by Adam Reich)

In one drawing, a seam separates what look like abutted sheet-metal plates pierced with pilot holes that guide the eye upward to two slits. These dark apertures could be emblematic of art as at once transparent and opaque. In these drawings, he aims for these ambivalences, enriched by potential correspondences about an object’s identity. The drawing seems architectural but its constructed holes and prominent seam also suggest a fashion design for a nightgown or a dress. 

In this play with suggestive correspondences, Fernández makes good on the famous aphorism by French poet Paul Éluard that, “There is another world, but it is inside this one,” an idea that affirms art as a form of visual excavation, akin to the scientific magic behind telescopes and microscopes. Accordingly the art re-presents objects and utensils in oblique relations; various instruments seem about to unveil another layer of reality but leave it up to us to draw mythic significances from the undecidable. Or maybe that proximity to understanding is a carnal knowledge that permanently eludes language. 

For much of his career his artistic revelations about the other-world-within-this-one involved exposing how our manufactured instruments are modeled upon, and therefore eerily resemble, parts of the very human bodies that fabricated them; in turn his work often dramatizes how those menacing erotic-and-mechanistic creations seem to surpass and displace their human creators. 

Agustín Fernández, “Untitled” (1965), graphite and photocollage on paper, 26 x 19 1⁄2 inches (© Agustin Fernandez Foundation; photo by Farzad Owrang)

But in this exhibition, the worlds that he opens are more life-affirming and exploratory than the dense, darker visions that cemented his reputation. In one such lyrical photo-collage/drawing the artist juxtaposes cascading sweeps and curls of long hair with close-ups of the roots and scalp. The masterfully executed lines and collagist rearrangements de-familiarize the known and, in so doing, restore to us the visual experience of hair as an unnerving, organic essence: as untrammeled, rhythmic, unpredictable. In these and other compositions, Fernández proves that a judicious imagination combined with steely control can tease out what is imminent, always near us, and, fortunately, never fully disclosing its secrets to our ever interested gazes. 

Agustín Fernández: Drawings and Collages (1960s–1980s) continues at Mitchell Algus Gallery (132 Delancey Street, 2nd Floor, Manhattan) through December.

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