Art: Wednesday, February 20, 2003
Jesse’s Girls

But that’s not all thisFort Worth artist has to say.


Jesse Sierra Hernandez is the most successful unsuccessful artist in Fort Worth. If he had a penny for everyone who’s ever seen his figurative oil paintings, especially his sumptuous female nudes, he’d be a couple-hundred-thousandaire. See, everybody knows “Jesse,” the soft-spoken, friendly young gentleman who is rarely caught on the town in anything other than the most impeccable formal wear. And everybody knows his work, which has hung in several bars and some other local establishments. But very few folks actually own Hernandezes. Now, this could have something to do with an arid art market, or it could be more a question of omnipresence: When your work is nearly everywhere at once, it’s liable to be perceived as ready-made or easily produced. Hanging paintings where you can, typically gratis, isn’t a great way to make a living at art, just a relatively sure path to minor celebritydom. But buzz can’t pay the rent.

A schizophrenic exhibit at Gallery 414 is testament to Hernandez’ status as Cowtown’s super-unknown, a guy everyone cheers for, if only because he represents something other than what they know (which isn’t art; which is, I guess, tax law or music or nursing). Since his most fully realized paintings, which are abstract in temperament, hang as far away from the 414 entrance as possible, it’s logical to say that Hernandez is driven primarily by giving his audience what it wants (e.g., babes) instead of what it needs. Still, we should be glad these magnificent abstractions made the cut at all — they’re that outré compared to the rest of his work on view. The literary comparison that comes to mind is John Updike: His stories involve just enough sex to keep the bored women and depleted menfolk a-drool and just enough genuine craftsmanship to please other literary types. Hernandez spreads himself similarly in this exhibit.

It’s kind of difficult to tell if his abstract excursions are wonderful because of their inherent goodness or because of their contrapuntal timbres to the lesser, more booty-licious works. It’s kind of difficult to tell, but not impossible — Hernandez’ feisty bouts with abstraction could likely stand alongside the best contemporary canvases in Tejas, I’ll say it here. Take “Cortes the Killer”: A frenetic vision of violence, brutality manifest in bloodstained limbs and swirling fists and open-throated cries, this massive painting is a sadistic symphony. To either side of a white shield emblazoned with a red crucifix, conquistadors and Indians battle one another in blood-red parries and thrusts on a white canvas. It’s nearly impossible to divert your eyes from the beautiful carnage. “Questions of Faith” sounds similar notes. To the left of a central blond Hispanic Christ figure is a collection of men of the cloth — some wearing despondent or contrite visages, others sinister scowls. And to the right are altar boys, bound at the hands and gagged. The heavy symbolism and confusing politics can’t detract from the quicksilver brushstrokes and breathtaking imagery contained within this sizable canvas. And even though the characters here aren’t nearly as active as the characters in “Cortes,” this piece is as equally spellbinding. Like a red Ferrari, this painting just looks fast.

One thing these abstractions have that Hernandez’ cheesecakes don’t is content, even if it is heavy-handed or trite. All his plump young women say, if anything, is “sex,” which distressed, evil minds could (mis-)interpret as a type of sexist statement (i.e., the objectifying of women) but which average viewers would have to look excruciatingly hard to find, considering these curvy women would hardly qualify as swimsuit-edition queens or catwalk doyennes. The sex in these paintings is muted by Hernandez’ exhibitions of dexterity: These gals are really all about him. With these pieces, the artist has flexed his muscles, arriving at perfect likenesses of human skin, with nary a brushstroke visible, and rendering neatly the contortions of the human body in expressive repose. Of course, these paintings would’ve been hot ... in Victorian England. It’s not like you can’t swing a stick nowadays without hitting a magazine or internet set devoted to naked young lasses. The truth is: When you look at one of Hernandez’ nudes, you’re really looking at the artist as industrious factory worker, laboring beneath boiling lamplight, churning out fantasies by the pound. His sweat is all over these works — yet only viewers who’ve never seen an Alma-Tadema or a Rosetti would say Jesse’s flirtations are “masterful.” Not quite.

Finally, it would be impossible for me to complete this review without acknowledging my fondness for the artist as a person — he’s a great guy who made me feel at home in this strange new town when I landed here about a year ago. His willingness (and ability) to appeal to popular tastes while harboring a real talent for personal expression makes Hernandez a conflicted figure on the Texas art scene; your support could help. See this show before it ends this weekend ... and bring along your checkbook.

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