PARIS — A visceral, hyper-sexualized sensibility runs through the extravagantly stylish oeuvre of Cuban artist Agustin Fernandez, who resided here from 1959 to 1968 and died in New York City in 2006.
The power of plucky erotic fantasies and sexual innuendos, Fernandez’s leitmotif, often supersedes respectful social significance, so one aspect of Fernandez’s inventive art is forever going to be libertine, even when tempered by our understanding that the dominance of the straight western male posture is no longer unquestioned in art. Gender is socially (not naturally) constructed and, when recognized as a fluid concept in art, defies easy recognition. Needless to say, nothing is less certain in art than gender, and though irreverent works like Yoko Ono’s cheeky film “Four” (1966), Valie Export’s “Action Pants: Genital Panic” (1969), Kembra Pfahler’s “Wall of Vagina” (2011), and Betty Tompkins’s Fuck Paintings may suggest otherwise, many women feel there is something deeply feckless, if not downright alienating, about reducing the human body to its isolated sex parts. Not so in Paradoxe de la Jouissance (“Paradox of Pleasure”), the chutzpah-packed exhibition of Fernandez’s controversial late work insightfully curated by Jeanette Zwingenberger at the city hall of Paris’s fourth arrondissement.
Art historically, Fernandez’s slightly sadomasochistic and obsessively erotic semi-abstract paintings of constrained body parts fit into the context of mannerist (or decadent) late Surrealism, which delighted in degradation by interpreting it as an act of alchemical transmutation delivering transgressive freedom from puritanical imposition. Adopted by the latter-day Surrealists, Fernandez showed with Francis Picabia at Galerie Fürstenberg in 1965 and with Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Hans Bellmer, and Pierre Roy at Galerie André François Petit in 1966. Fernandez’s surreal, elliptical, and erotic bent is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the current show by his coolly sadistic painting “Untitled” (1998), which depicts a severed, splayed, and distorted purplish bird-headed body lacking volitional control while undergoing coitus. Beyond constrained, psychosomatic, surreal dream imagery and a general slippery machine ambiance, it suggests to me a certain exaggerated erotic desire that values the vulnerability of abused human flesh held in bondage to some imagined non-romantic post-biological reality. A piquant wind blows through you as you ponder the poking device directly linking the humanoid sexual system’s electronic signals to some pitiless bio-controller probe, foregrounding the frailty of human flesh when pierced by the somber impregnability of technology. Here, and consistently elsewhere during the diagrammatic, fetishized phase covered in the exhibition, Fernandez disregards the beatific (if banal) blooming mood typically associated with sexual imagery by painting in a gritty, dark, and oily metallic palette that distances his work from the tropical chromaticism often associated with his native Cuba.
Other more minimal paintings featured here have a constrained, quasi-ritualistic rigor about them that suggests isolated, zoomed-in glimpses of sexual bondage and humiliation, like the exquisitely medieval-looking “Taboo” (2004). Bound and freaky cyborg parts abound in his work, however “Taboo” goes further into complexity as it merges sexual forms of both sexes by depicting a gleaming isolated black woman’s breast with the indentation in her nipple formed to resemble the opening in a penis. Again, in other highly idiosyncratic hybrid paintings, female body parts appear to have been coerced so as to outstrip the dichotomy between technology and the body. Some of the hottest, weirdest, relentlessly provocative, and most accomplished paintings — like the vivid, shimmering, and seemingly gelatinous “Untitled” (1997) and the brute “Untitled” (circa 2003), where a farcical woman-bird dominatrix seems to be up to something ominous — appear to have developed out of the machine-like repetitions seen in the 1989 drawing “Untitled” (1989). These works give the impression of being influenced by the ancient, many-breasted Ephesian Artemis fertility goddess.
Regardless if the forms suggest straightforwardly constrained single sex forms or androgynous, blended body parts, everything in Paradox of Pleasure speaks to me of the radical body politics of cyberpunk power, sex, and violence. That churning anima of desire places it in conjunction with H.R. Giger’s famous 1973 painting “Penis Landscape” (aka “Work 219: Landscape XX”). But unlike Giger’s alien aesthetic, Fernandez’s achievement is a reinvention of romanticism, where the performative and the ingenious seem curiously intertwined. Even more to the point, Fernandez’s foreboding paintings share in the chopped-body aesthetics favored by Robert Gober and Paul Thek, particularly Thek’s Technological Reliquaries series, which includes “Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box” (1965). Like these artists, Fernandez seems to take delight in an inventiveness that can be morally negligent, gnarly, brooding, sad, eccentric, and emotionally moving in a way that is maddeningly hard to explain without mentioning cold brutality. It is not for nothing that one of his paintings, “Développement d’un délire” (“Development of a delusion,” 1961) — which is not in this show — was featured in the 1980 Brian de Palma film Dressed to Kill (a movie beloved by certain artists for its Metropolitan Museum of Art scene, lushly scored by Pino Donaggio).
Aesthetically, Fernandez’s paintings of armored, pansexual intimacy create a vivid psycho-geography that can be a bit lumbering in much the same way as Wifredo Lam’s, Roberto Matta’s, and André Masson’s mysterious paintings. However, this is something that Fernandez’s drawings, like “Le Roi et la Reine” (“The King and the Queen,”1960) — which calls to mind Marcel Duchamp’s famous painting “Le Roi et la Reine entourés de Nus vites” (“The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes,” 1912) — manage to avoid. But in both mediums, as well as in his collages (like the startling “Malcom X” from 1982), there are complicated identifications going on that blur organic with inorganic forms.
Duchamp first made reference to the machine célibataire (bachelor machine) apparatus in a 1913 note written in preparation for his piece “La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même” (“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” 1915–23), which accentuates mental machines that work away on the imaginary, deconstructing the Hegelian tradition of sexual difference established as a dialectical and organic opposition of masculine and feminine. Fernandez’s enigmatic sex-machine bondage, which probes the shameless vagaries of human desire with Duchampian panache, is an indirect outgrowth of the arrière-garde, male-dominant French Surrealist tastes demonstrated in the 1959 Eros exhibition organized by André Breton and Duchamp in Paris. But it also suggests a more contemporary, tautly eroticized and virtualized flesh that banks on a hyper-sexed, electronic corporeality that is artificial, bionic, and prosthetic — basically an updated extension of the re-territorialization of physique, identity, and appearance depicted early on in the feverish cyborg aesthetics of Oskar Schlemmer and Fernand Léger.
As perversely droll and symptomatic as it is to experience the rhapsody of Fernandez’s loveless and lopsided sadomasochistic cybernetic pleasures playing within the male mystique, I could not help but also view the nasty permissiveness of Paradox of Pleasure in the bright light of artistic misogyny that shines from Kate Millett’s seminal 1970 study Sexual Politics through to today’s #TimesUp movement. In his most alluring compositions, Fernandez imagines the effective castration of the privileged male artist in relationship to the manipulated female body. Therein lies the pleasurable paradox.
Agustin Fernandez: Paradoxe de la Jouissance continues at the Mairie du 4e arrondissement (2 Place Baudoyer, 4th arrondissement, Paris) through June 16.