Freewheeling: Josh Reames and José Lerma Collaborate
Report from… Los Angeles
Josh Reames and José Lerma Collaboration at Luis De Jesus
January 30 to March 5, 2016
2685 S La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, (310) 838-6000
The collaborative paintings of Josh Reames and Jose Lerma are a pas de deux in draftsmanship: Lerma’s freewheeling, skinny line cavorts with Reames’s softer, rounded marks and carefully taped off volumes. The two artists here join forces for the first time, having spent all of January working in situ at the Luis De Jesus gallery, a habitual approach for Lerma but a first for Reames. They first met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Lerma was Reames’s adviser), and have since become friends.
The front room holds two enormous paintings on facing walls, He Hath Founded It Upon the Seas I and II, both depicting fantastical assemblies of pirates, colonialists, or figures that amalgamate the two. The figures appear in a tropical setting referencing the Cayman Islands, notorious as a tax shelter and invoked in the first painting by images of a lion, three starfish, a turtle, and a pineapple, all found on the islands’ official crest (as is the paintings’ title) and in the second by inclusion of Ugland House, the administrative center for the territory. Ranging in color from jet blacks to faint grays and a few neutral hues, the scenes are composed with energetic goofiness. Lerma’s multi-eyed caricatures jostle in tight clusters amidst the chaos of Reames’ cannonballs, beer bottles, googly eyes, cigarettes, and blocky exclamation marks hovering illusionistically above the canvas surface.
The subject of the paintings begs the political question: given their status as luxury goods affordable only to the one percent, are these gigantic paintings capable of critiquing those who might utilize the Cayman Islands for financial advantage? In the memorable phrasing of Clement Greenberg, Reames and Lerma are tied to these oligarchs “by an umbilical cord of gold.” To their credit, the artists acknowledge their enmeshment, having populated the paintings with denizens of the Los Angeles art world and not spared themselves (the artists have stuck their own heads on pikes, and the gallery owner’s too). Everything is shot through with silliness: a man’s thigh doubles as an enormous penis, a cannonball sports a face, goofy sea monsters allude to the drug trade, and an enormous leg strides through the center of the second canvas, meant to suggest Monty Python. This last reference clarifies the work as comedic satire, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the world in which Reames and Lerma make their livings. Faced with a system whose corruption they recognize but in which they are deeply implicated, the artists turn to the absurd. The Monty Python leg speaks also to the improvisation they used to arrive at these paintings (they began with a palm tree painted by Reames, to which Lerma reacted, Reames replied, and so on).
Monty Python is not the only forebear here: in an echo of Philip Guston’s The Line (1978), a hand descends from the heavens in the middle of the first painting, but where Guston’s god-like hand drew a line on the earth, Reames/Lerma’s hand extends a finger to touch the pineapple symbol in benediction. In the second piece, the central leg makes me think of Guston’s San Clemente (1975) in which the disgraced former President Nixon stands on the beach suffering from phlebitis, his foot and calf swollen to horrific proportion.
The Reames/Lerma collaboration shares Guston’s commitment to social commentary but lacks his depth of feeling, but I don’t think they were after that anyway. These are devil-may-care paintings showcasing Lerma’s frenetic energy and Reames’s loony playfulness, with a dollop of political consciousness mixed in. Ultimately, it is the visual pyrotechnics that reward attentive viewing. Such excitements are lacking in the gallery’s inner room, in which the artists hung a rotating gallery door made to look as though the glass is cracked and battered by stray bullets. The room is lit only by spotlights shining through bottles of Windex serving as blue gels, alluding to gentrification as a bourgeois cleansing performed by artists and galleries taking over low rent neighborhoods. The piece feels overly concept-driven and humorless compared to the front room.
The project room in the back is a final grace note, not to be missed. Two paintings by Reames and one by Lerma offer a look at each artist’s syntax when left to his own devices, a handy key if you’re having trouble deciphering who made what in the front. Lerma’s contribution, Doubting Thomas, is breathtaking. Jesus is the central figure, with his disciples tightly clustered around him to fill the rectangle. The painting is a jumble of bodies claustrophobically pressed together, made from black and white stencil-patterned torsos with flowing hair framing fleshy, eyeless faces with bulbous glowing pink noses and mouths. A finger pokes Jesus’s wound in the painting’s center. The blindness is striking given Lerma’s penchant for heads with anywhere from five to dozens of eyes. The painting is electric in its urgent opposition of belief and skepticism.