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This Painter Reveals by Disguising

Salomon Huerta forces viewers to search for connections with the people and houses he depicts.

October 08, 2000|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is regular contributor to Calendar

Plenty of artists find unending interest in facial expression, but Salomon Huerta waits for his subjects to turn away. In the borrowed downtown loft he uses as a studio, his almost life-size paintings of the backs of heads and figures hang on the white brick walls like an unexpected crowd scene. Cool and precise, they look toward jewel-tone backgrounds of crimson and gold.

Crisp and clearsighted, Huerta's unconventional approach to portraiture has earned him critical acclaim and collector commitment, ever since his paintings were included in last year's Whitney Biennial. Newsweek's Peter Plagens compared his work to that of such established figures as Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud. And it is the paintings of heads and figures that attracted the interest of powerhouse art dealer Larry Gagosian, who will exhibit Huerta's work at his galleries in New York and London next year.

Yet Huerta has already begun to move on.

"I don't want to be pigeonholed as the guy who paints heads," he says with a slight Spanish inflection in his English. He directs a visitor's attention to his latest series, paintings of the simple, stucco postwar houses so ubiquitous in Southern California. Both heads and houses will be featured in his show at Patricia Faure Gallery from Oct. 21 to Nov. 25.

Dressed in a navy pullover and khaki slacks, Huerta, 35, is affable and thoughtful. Perched on a stool next to a table topped with books on Bellini and Caravaggio, he takes in the progress on his latest paintings. The luminous house pictures are based on snapshots that he took in San Bernardino, but instead of luminosity, the photos reveal shabby, dull houses fronted by burnt-out grass.

"They are the generic house that you might find in any neighborhood, except a very wealthy neighborhood," he says. He has transformed them into pristine jewels of peach and lemon perched on manicured lawns. "I got the idea by visiting a jail in Watts and seeing a nearby housing project that was so remodeled, it looked like something from 'The Truman Show,' " he says. "Maybe if you beautify the community, it would solve the problems."

As important for Huerta was his feeling that the L.A. community was familiar with his rearview paintings, which he has been executing for the past two years. "It's a challenge to reinvent yourself and see how far you can take the work," he says. "The houses are an extension of the heads, in that they are treated the same way--detached and stripped down."

To create the effect, Huerta lays glossy, sheer layers of color with scarcely a whisper of a brush stroke. Ironically, the extreme neutrality of this technique is what draws in viewers.

The Times' art critic, Christopher Knight, observed, in a recent review of Huerta's portraits: "Huerta objectifies the painting to establish a parallel experience: It's as if you're standing in line behind an Everyman, who gazes ahead into a painted field--which is of course what you are doing too. The usual split between mind and body gets fused together, as an acute consciousness of simultaneous perception and physicality wells up inside."

"My goal was to do a portrait detached from the viewer so he can search for some kind of connection," Huerta says, looking at his unfinished canvas of a head covered in short red hair. "You don't have the face to instantly leave a visual or emotional connection. Also, I didn't give away my own identity. Disguising them, I also disguise myself.

"So the viewer becomes the aggressor standing behind someone and observing."

The paintings' basis in realism, with a nod toward Huerta's training as an illustrator, only adds to their mystery. Still, this is enhanced realism. Traditional figure painters see his heads and point out things like the fact that ears are supposed to be translucent.

"This is not about the figure," Huerta argues. "It just is a figure. It's not illusional in terms of figure painting. In fact, the perspective is off in all of them." He indicates three snapshots taped together to make an image of a figure sitting in a chair. "The torso is longer and the lower legs are longer than normal, but it works visually. As long as they are visually convincing at a glance, the more you look at them the more you see. I'm focusing on the shapes but not the nuances that make up the rendering. Sometimes I'm interested in the color, period."

Huerta's talent as a colorist is considerable. The shaved head of a Filipino man is set against a ruby background, and in another painting a tangerine house rests on an emerald lawn under a robin's-egg blue sky. "I love to look at magazines," he says, flipping through a recent issue of Flaunt. "I incorporate the dominant colors into my palette. Viewers have something that feels familiar to them."

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