For most people, the definition of painting is pretty straightforward paint on a surface. But you might change your impression of that after seeing Jose Lermas The Credentialist, an exhibit playing through the summer at Raleighs Contemporary Art Museum.
There is little actual paint involved in most of the 17 works in The Credentialist. Instead, Lerma uses carpet, dye, reflective plastic, parachute fabric, various types of paper and even keyboard sounds, among many other media.
Jose really expands the notion of painting with this, said CAM executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, who commissioned The Credentialist for the museum. He uses prints, puppets, carpets all very accessible materials. But its the imagination that transforms them.
Lerma, a Spanish-born artist who grew up in Puerto Rico, lives primarily in Brooklyn. Hes been making provocative multimedia art for years. And the way he sees it, all of his works are paintings.
Painting is pigment on a surface with a binder, but a lot of things qualify under that very minimal definition, Lerma said. I try to fit other things within that. And a lot of works in the show you might not consider paintings, theyre about paintings, in a way.
The centerpiece of The Credentialist is a room-sized portrait of Charles II, the 17th-century Bewitched King of Spain whose numerous physical and intellectual disabilities (reputedly the result of generations of inbreeding) made his reign nothing short of catastrophic. Lermas portrait takes up the entire floor of the main gallery, and its made of cut carpet samples, which start to look ever stranger the longer you gaze at them. That fits the subject.
Charles II is a figure who embodies both extreme power and weakness in very overt ways, Lerma said. There was a lot of solemnity to what he had to do, taking part in the rituals of a king at that time. But there was also something freakish about his appearance and how he acted. He was one of the most powerful monarchs in the world, and also the weakest person in the room.
Right between the portraits eyes is a small raised platform, just below a spotlight you might use to illuminate a patio. The light is pointed at a curtain, made of Scotchlite reflective material. Viewed from the platform, the curtain gives off an unearthly glow that seems like what you might imagine seeing at the moment of death.
Standing on that platform is also the best vantage point for listening to the exhibits audio component. Four works consist of large canvases along the walls, festooned with airbrushed images that look like ink doodles suggesting life, death and power. These canvases play keyboards, in that theyre propped up on the keys with the notes, tones and keys changing from one day to the next, according to Lermasinstructions. The keyboards emit low electronic hums, which blend together in different ways, rising and falling. Depending on where you happen to be in the room, that mix of sounds is either hypnotic or unsettling (or both), working in conjunction with the surrounding visuals.
The show was conceived with a triangulation element, both the sights and the sounds, Lerma said. It alludes to politics, plus the act of moving around to see and hear things as they become beautiful or dull. Its a lot of meandering. Proximity to power is something I try to use in a poetic way.
Power remains a recurrent theme for Lerma, who earned a political science degree and studied law before taking a hard left turn to pursue contemporary high-concept art. Much of his work deals with history, along the lines of this exhibits Charles II portrait.
Some of that history is fairly contemporary, however. The Credentialist also includes The Countess and the Godmother, two 15-foot-high puppets made of photographic paper. They were inspired by the Puerto Rican talk show SuperXclusivo, which Lerma watched while growing up in the 1980s.
Its basically a gossip show, Lerma said. Something like a political Perez Hilton, with these cranky puppets doing interviews. But its an essential platform for a certain kind of star there, in politics or show business. Political careers are constantly ruined there, sometimes in fascinating ways. Theres a hotline and people call in: I saw such and such politician or star in such and such place, and they were drunk or high, starting a fight.
Here, Lerma paused to laugh.
Its a little like the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a puppet thats all about taking people down, he said. I find it incredible that a puppet is one of the most powerful figures in Puerto Rico.
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