Artist Critique

Jerry Cullum, Art Papers. TONY HERNANDEZ (Fay Gold Gallery, January 4—February 8, 2003)


Tony Hernandez is one of the more respected of these purveyors of private symbology loosely based on historical images. Unlike, say, the endlessly questing Todd Murphy, Hernandez has found his pictorial niche and stuck with it, developing a limited set of symbols to the point that the introduction of a single new symbol reads as an epochal event to those who have followed his development.

We recognize the precisely rendered solo figures in his large-scale encaustics as European Jewish children from the late 1930s. We do so because of subtle cues of clothing and paraphernalia, despite the fact that Hernandez’ images rarely involve more than the boy or girl and a suitcase, a park bench, or a pet or plaything. In the current series as in the imme­diately preceding one, the children wear gold crowns or red conical hats like dunce caps; in one comic touch, a pigeon by the child’s side wears its own miniature red hat. As in all of Hernandez’ work, the encaustic’s cream-toned blankness surrounds the central image.

The general effect is one of immense sadness, mingled with unease. If they recognize the visual cues, viewers think about the Holocaust, and the crowns become martyrs’ crowns, even though that symbol evokes Catholicism more than Judaism. The conical red hats may recall medieval anti-Semitic woodcuts of Jewish elders, or be more general symbols of being sin­gled out as the focus of ridicule and opprobrium. If the latter, then the red could be interpreted as the blood of martyrdom, or a defiant image of life in the face of immi­nent death. Or one could go on, endlessly imposing meanings on images that insistently defy preci­sion. One could make comparisons with the surreal Jewish world of the fiction of Bruno Schulz, in terms of the placement of children in curious situations that recall elusive dreams rather than linear narratives.

But why bother? The images operate on such a non-verbal level that one has been used for a CD by Train, a sure sign of instant emotional appeal. This appeal may or may not be humorous in the new work; most viewers find comedy for the first time, a relief from the stark sobriety prevailing earlier. But the nature of dreams is intrinsically such that the same image that speaks of comedy to one viewer may speak of tragedy to another.

It’s rare to find an artist whose work functions so totally on a level that gives the subjective sensation of intellectual satisfaction without providing anything like an obvious conceptual agenda. Those who insist upon clear and distinct ideas will be defeated. Those who are willing to defer the satisfactions of meaning obviously find immense pleasure in this work, and pleasure more than is derived from the sim­plicity of a pretty painting. Whether Hernandez has earned the poignancy he delivers is some­thing for theoreticians of the Holocaust to figure out. All that matters for the question of con­temporary painting is that his approach to figuration delivers a definable psychological impact, and that he does this with rather more complexity than most painters.

jerry william cullum

art critic