On ViewThe Mistake Room
Through the Flesh to Elsewhere
February 15–April 11, 2020
“My passion for the daily struggle, to render them concrete in a world, to render them flesh, keeps me alive,” reads the title of a 2019 work by Felipe Baeza quoting fellow queer Latinx artist Gloria Anzaldúa’s posthumous poetry collection Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). Baeza’s work depicts a figure rendered in layers of ink, graphite, paper, and glitter emerging from an inky, murky landscape. A stream of cut paper spews from the figure’s mouth as a network of veins, a web of vines or a flash of lapping flames; organic material with elemental energy sits atop the layers of materials; a pink hue, reminiscent of the flesh of internal organs, vibrates above the grey matter. The body and the earth meld together; the figure appears and disappears into the background, steadfast in its confrontation of the viewer. Baeza’s figurative practice is rooted in the poetics of viewing another body: the depth of layered materials abstracts the image of the body, rendering it partially visible and partially cloaked, and giving visual form to the concept of the fugitive body.
Through the Flesh to Elsewhere, organized by César García-Alvarez, is the Mistake Room’s first presentation of Baeza’s work and spans 2008 through 2019, offering an extensive overview of the artist’s practice and trajectory. Comprised of over 60 works, the show presents a decade spent exploring queer imagery and mining the richness of printmaking techniques to arrive at the artist’s current figuration in which the fugitive body is both resilient and mercurial.
The early works in the exhibition exemplify Baeza’s nascent exploration of queer imagery firmly rooted in a direct confrontation with Catholic art. Growing up in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, the local National Museum of Mexican Art had a profound impact on him as a young person negotiating facets of personal identity along the lines of nationality, ancestry, sexuality, and gender. These early works queer the visual language of religious art, and in doing so address the power of representation. In a trio of silkscreens titled Actos santos (2007), an interracial couple copulates in an otherwise decontextualized space next to cabinets with religious decor atop—Jesus on the cross, a votive candle, the Virgin Mary. Pared down, Baeza allows for the figures to speak for themselves, directly addressing the conflict between queer desire and religious doctrine. The figures are raw and graphic. Undeniably male–phallocentric imagery asserts itself against religious imagery, creating a dialogue about objects of desire and fetishization of body parts along the lines of both worship and punishment, blurring the lines between religious and sexual ecstasy.
The final early work in the exhibition is an installation comprised of two sculptures, Fogata and Untitled (both 2009), displayed together as an altar. Red flames lick up the wall and male bodies bound in varying positions appear to tumble downwards; above hangs Christ on the cross, depicted as the literal phallus it symbolizes. Originally exhibited at Cooper Union, this installation represents a transitional moment in Baeza’s formal process, the bounds of printmaking are expanded and broadened for a more experimental approach. This moment is a directional shift in Baeza’s work, as collage becomes incorporated as a key element in his approach to the figure. In My vision is small fixed to what can be heard between the ears to the spot between the eyes a well-spring to el mundo grande (2018), this transition is evident—Baeza’s figures become more ethereal, rendered in cadmium red and ultramarine blue against a black background. Though nude, the bodies rendered in monochrome become less tangibly corporeal and more metaphysical. As the bodies are unbound in space and occupy an otherworldly realm—in this case, infinite darkness—the focus shifts from the material realities of bodies to the lyrical possibilities of embodiment beyond the constraints of the real world.
Layering materials and utilizing the deconstructive process of collage reveals a multitude of possibilities for rendering figures, divorced from traditional figuration that has historically centered representation as a means to typify the natural or idealized body. Instead, Baeza’s practice renders figures as transformative, fugitive bodies not fixed in space or time. Since 2008 (and throughout the exhibition) these figures have become less overtly sexualized or even gendered. For Baeza, this is part of a goal to explore what queer art can look like, to create new narratives without perpetuating a fetishistic gaze via formal means. Through collage and the layering of materials, Baeza diverts an all-consuming gaze, demanding intimacy from the viewer and re-situating the art object and the body as an object of desire for a resistant experience of consuming. A brilliant blue duo, Naj tunich (Azul 1) (2018) and Naj tunich (Azul 2) (2018), depict a couple embracing in ultramarine blue monotone, their figures revealed only by thin lines and areas of faded cobalt, revealing layers of red beneath the surface that would otherwise be invisible.
Baeza has referenced the José Esteban Muñoz quote: “I rehearsed and planned a future self, one that is not quite here but always in process, always becoming, emerging in difference.” Speaking to an artistic practice that aims to express a way of being in the world that foregrounds a process of becoming, the quote suggests alternative narratives of being, an engagement beyond the boundaries of a world that relies on binary thinking dominated by oppressive hierarchies of power—or as the exhibition titles suggests, Through the Flesh to Elsewhere.