Alonsa Guevara (born 1986) has a collection of paintings and sculptures in the “Espiritu” exhibition, going on at the Anna Zorina Gallery in Chelsea, opening on May 10th and closing June 16th. Guevara’s life-size paintings and jewelry look like religious ceremonies and often have the word “ceremony” in their titles, and the paintings are arresting to look at because of their beauty. Guevara’s life-size portraits all have women in them, who lay with fruits, flowers, and vegetables.
These paintings evoke an air of defiance for a few reasons. The first reason these paintings are defiant is their thematic celebration of women, fertility, and feminine aspects. This celebration of feminism is absolutely fitting for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements of 2018. The second reason these paintings are defiant has to do with “women’s intuition,” which is basically the deduction (as in the argument defending their rights) and “devil-may-care” attitude about the ability to have children. Intuition here also remarks of intrigue and mystery, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is of a piece with Guevara’s goals. Da Vinci’s painting uses the faint smile of the subject in order to keep the viewer of the painting guessing as to what the psychology of Mona Lisa is. This fundamental tension between façade and psychology, or appearances and reality, is what makes the Mona Lisa so beguiling, so intriguing. Here, Guevara uses that intrigue to oppose the viewer who might think these paintings are too easy or too simple.
Titled as ceremonies, and the fact that the jewelry and sculptures look like artifacts, these paintings are majestic and colorful depictions of women naked lying down on fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The ceremony is life and death. These are ceremonies because they are repeated actions, and it’s their repetition – ad infinitum and hence universally – that lends their divinity as ceremonies. Women get killed off in the same way men do, and here that means life consumes itself. Regardless, Guevara sees that women still “bear fruit” by having children, and the colors and the smiles tell the audience that the narrator sees the processes of life as a good thing, a blessing on the ceremonies.
Guevara’s portraits have three basic forms of defiance. The first form of defiance is the element of the ideal. Guevara’s women are beautiful as feminine subjects, and so they lend themselves to speculation and fantasy. What are they thinking? This is part of the intrigue and beguiling like our Mona Lisa – that is, these paintings give the viewer guile and inquisitiveness – and all of this means the audience has to sort these mysteries out, not the subject of the painting. If there are any problems with a naked woman, Guevara doesn’t show it. Against this ideal of potentials, Guevara shows what’s given, what appears in phenomenology and psychoanalysis as enjoyment. By showing women in the nude, one could say Guevara takes the wind out of the sails of sexualized fantasies. There’s a strange achievement here, whereupon these portraits are all gendered, fantastic (just a little bit too many fruits and animals), and sexual, without being erotic. The lack of eroticism seems like a contradiction when these paintings show beautiful naked women in sticky fruit juices – but Guevara is making a message to women, for women, and so she is absolutely within her goals and ambitions here.
Guevara’s command of art history is extraordinary. Essentially the paintings are the combination of two great art lineages, that of the sacred feminine in art, and secondly that of food or feast artwork. These two are intertwined because cultures and civilizations needed women to eat and be healthy in order to have children. So, the Venus of Willendorf from some 30,000 years ago is a small sculpture of a fat woman because the sculptor wanted to say their village from some 30,000 years ago had enough food to make a woman fat. Food and feast as a subject in Western Art, in a criminally broad categorization, would include everything from the Dionysian Mystery Feasts, to still lives of fruit, to the “triumph” paintings of the Renaissance. The feasts and foods in these works of art represented joy and enjoyment. And if, as in our sculptor of Willendorf, they didn’t have food or feasts, food and enjoyment were always ideals to work toward.
Guevara’s paintings and jewelry are a bit anachronistic insofar as she is above the game of Western Art Canon. Guevara’s use of color speaks to Matisse and the brilliant colors of Fauvism. Following that, her use of event-tied color is reminiscent of David Hockney. That is, Hockney painted vast paintings with the color blue, including swimming pools, and these paintings were immediate reactions to his surroundings, which had California backyard swimming pools in them, and the technologies of his time that created blue paints in technological chemical composition. The 1600’s painters didn’t have swimming pools, and they didn’t have blue paints in the same way Hockney did. When Guevara paints a woman surrounded by bananas and autumn plants and animals such as squash, she uses color like Matisse, and she’s using technology like David Hockney.
With that in mind, looking at Guevara’s paintings is a pleasurable aesthetic experience, because the artist paints a fantastic portrait, that of a live, photo-realistic beautiful woman, on fantastical terms, meaning lots of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The premise is absurd, and painted photo-realistically. Guevara’s paintings mention pleasure – which the viewer picks up as symbolic mimesis – by using watermelons and bananas, and closer inspection even shows ants and rabbits eating the fruits and feasting on the fruit juices.
Guevara is timely and in context in terms of the critical lens of popular culture. Namely, Katy Perry’s “Bon Appetit” music video from 2017 shows that singer battered, marinated, and served, in a double entendre for sex. Perry does her homework, and in her 2010 music video for her song “California Gurls,” was based on the work of artist Will Cotton. Guevara and Perry aren’t borrowing from each other because there’s enough of a distance in time and place to say as much. Still, it’s clear they’re taking from the same sources. “Bon Appetit” is an awkward video because it symbolically compares eating and having sex. And upon thinking it over, Perry might be talking about how popular culture cannibalizes its female pop stars. Guevara and Perry acknowledge the commodification of romance, sex, and pleasure because calling them commodities doesn’t cancel them as ideals. Americans use and eat fruits and vegetables as commodities, and here Guevara says nature exists beyond capitalism in the same way.