Within the much-traveled territory of portraiture and figurative painting, Carlos Daniel Donjuan is striking out for unclaimed land. The Mexican transplant, whose show shares the Satellite Space with Connie Swann this month, begins with the basics — subject, background, visual clues — then detours into the postmodern: his subjects are outsiders, minorities, and illegals. Small details comment on art history, most notably the halos surrounding a toddler’s head in one painting, a Chinese pug’s in another. And then it gets interesting.
Donjuan’s backgrounds serve as keys and commentary, much like Kehinde Wiley’s textile backdrops (Wiley’s large-scale portraits were on view at Artpace this winter and spring), but they are also a form of erasure. The fragments of graffiti in “Scumset,” a dual portrait of two young Latinos seated casually on the ground, are disappearing. Rather than hanging heavy in the background like baggage, they’re becoming weightless, liberating his protagonists from their and our assumptions. I especially love the way that he transforms subculture-specific fashion — shades, tennis shoes, head scarves — into practical uniforms for the new border-plagued millennium, for the Tierra Nueva of the show’s title.
Much of the show is filled with straightforward portraits, and Donjuan has a notable gift for capturing the souls of his subjects through the tics and unconscious affectations that animate flesh and bone, which is rare, even in photography. He lets the wood grain of his underlying birch panels show through in skin and sky, organic surfaces that contrast with opaque mountains and forests, echoing the way he contrasts curves and hard lines in his images, and creating a tension that suggests eternal conflicts between nature and man, the desires for freedom and security.
The most intriguing pieces are the larger, surreal compositions of pairs set against geometric mountain backgrounds that suggest the old promise of the West but are also reminiscent of military renderings in both the flat lines and (mostly) muted colors. A couple is poised, ready to move, he in glasses and hood, she in head scarf, against a desert plateau and sharp triangles that suggest towering pines. A haloed pug is with them. It’s a counter narrative to the Romantic notion of the Noble Savage, the unspoiled, and by extension naïve, native whose New World demise at the hands of the settlers was much-lamented in the arts, but never stopped. In the long shadow of last year’s market collapse and this year’s swine-flu scare, these outsiders appear intrepid, equipped to deal with the double-edged sword of outlier existence.
Donjuan’s portraits and narrative paintings are romanticized, too, but from a sympathetic rather than objectifying perspective, more community photo album than distilled museum series. “Ghetto bird” is a complete evocation of a character who feels very real, talking around the cigarette gripped in his mouth, admiring the turtle he’s holding in his gloved hands. But if the ghetto bird is comfortable in his niche, the stenciled phrase in a painting of two women in head scarves — “I could float here 4-ever” — signals a desire for transcendence and escape, for the freedom of self-created context offered in the virtual world.
Carlos Donjuan: Tierra Nueva
Through May 24
UTSA Satellite Space
115 Blue Star
Connie Swann paints with acrylic and enamel on synthetic paper to create her abstract works, which hang, unframed, like darkroom prints on the Satellite Space’s gallery walls. The paintings float in the middle of the page, square edges overflowing, smudged, and streaked. The medium doesn’t absorb pigment like natural paper would, and the mostly transparent colors glisten in the light, as if they were laboratory slides squished under the microscope. The few opaque paintings are the least interesting; abstract expressionism redux. But when Swann combines the vaguely clinical feel of her translucent works with a paparazzi color wheel — Paris Hilton pinks, Blake Lively teals and lavenders — she commits a voyeuristic and magical transgression: lablike, yes, but also cinematic, as if she were burning celluloid frames on her canvases.
Connie Swann: Entre Los Dos
Through May 24
UTSA Satellite Space
115 Blue Star
At Joan Grona Gallery this month, Kelly O’Connor continues to reclaim Disney’s frosting-and-lace fairy tales for the Brothers Grimm with her beautifully constructed collages of found objects and cut paper. In “Heroine on Hormones,” Alice in Wonderland sprouts monstrous dancer legs, womanhood growing unruly and dangerous like Jack’s beanstalk from under that demure apron. In another diorama, Mary Poppins rises like a funnel cloud over a garden of bewitched blooms, which includes a disembodied Alice skirt. Judy Garland, that tragic gay icon and fairy-tale victim, floats through smaller mashups (one disturbingly titled “Who is the Master, Who is the Slave?”), and the title of yet another, “Too Drunk to Dream,” suggests Sleeping Beauty should’ve remained on permanent Valium vacation. Since I first saw O’Connor’s (yes) enchanting work in the 2007 Texas Biennial, her repurposed Disney album covers and weird but winsome critter vignettes have grown ever more crowded and ominous, and I wonder if they’re amassing bullshit density for a myth-busting big bang. I can’t wait to see what spins out of that.
Kelly O’Connor: Magnetic Fields
Through Jun 28
Joan Grona Gallery
112 Blue Star