José Gabriel Fernández by Bill Arning

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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It seems a tough time to make work about cultural identity, with all the big “identity politics” exhibitions—Masculine MasqueradeBlack MaleMistaken Identities—being studied now as historical perspectives. But Venezuelan conceptual sculptor José Gabriel Fernández has transcended that genre and hit upon a rich theme, which he explores with a light touch and inspired choices. And alongside his deft commentary on real life issues, there is still room for poetry. Since 1996, Fernández has been exploring the bullfight and using a matador’s outfit, his traje de luces (a suit of light)—a beautiful theatrical outfit, which accentuates the bullfighter’s masculinity but also, in its elegant brocade work, feminizes him. Its intense decoration makes one think of armor, but for all its lavishness, the only protection it could provide if a bull charged would be symbolic. The matador’s feat is strenuous and extremely dangerous, but also balletic. The paradoxical elements of this art/sport so central to Latin culture, with its theatrical and contradictory gender performance, are ripe for interrogation at the hand of an artist like Fernández.

Fernandez 01

José Gabriel Fernández, Armoire of Lights, 1998, plywood, steel wire and oil paint on gesso, 59 × 65 × 57 inches. All Images courtesy of the artist.

It seems a tough time to make work about cultural identity, with all the big “identity politics” exhibitions—Masculine MasqueradeBlack MaleMistaken Identities—being studied now as historical perspectives. But Venezuelan conceptual sculptor José Gabriel Fernández has transcended that genre and hit upon a rich theme, which he explores with a light touch and inspired choices. And alongside his deft commentary on real life issues, there is still room for poetry. Since 1996, Fernández has been exploring the bullfight and using a matador’s outfit, his traje de luces (a suit of light)—a beautiful theatrical outfit, which accentuates the bullfighter’s masculinity but also, in its elegant brocade work, feminizes him. Its intense decoration makes one think of armor, but for all its lavishness, the only protection it could provide if a bull charged would be symbolic. The matador’s feat is strenuous and extremely dangerous, but also balletic. The paradoxical elements of this art/sport so central to Latin culture, with its theatrical and contradictory gender performance, are ripe for interrogation at the hand of an artist like Fernández.

Fernandez 03

José Gabriel Fernández, Toreador Turning, 1999, Gesso on wood and aluminum, 17 × 16 × 11 inches.

In much of the Spanish-speaking world bullfighting is considered one of the most profoundly moving and difficult of all art forms. But from an Anglo, North American perspective it degrades to a tourist event brought home on videotape. If thought about in higher terms, it is often filtered through Picasso, Hemingway—or perhaps Bataille, among the edgier gringos. Add to that North Americans’ general distaste for killing animals for sport, and you get a fascinating nexus for cross-cultural mistranslation and misunderstanding. Fernández did not grow up with the sport. He was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and attended the Slade School of Art in London, before moving to New York in 1988 to attend the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study program. Fernández explains, “Bullfighting was a country thing in Venezuela, and I was raised in the city.” But in 1996 he was asked to participate in a museum show at the National Gallery of Art in Caracas, in which young artists selected artworks from Venezuelan history and responded to them. Fernández recalled a series of smolderingly homoerotic photos taken in the 1950s by Alfredo Boulton, a writer, critic and aristocrat. They showed a young, sexy matador, half undressed, his suit of light thrown casually over one shoulder. It was clear that by using the matador, Fernández could discuss many aspects of the production of identity relating to his life as a gay man of Latin American origin living abroad—whose nationality alone makes him a prize trophy in the sexual hunt.

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José Gabriel Fernández, Toreador Turning, 1999, Gesso on wood and aluminum, 17 × 16 × 11 inches.

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Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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