Chicago

René Santos

Feature

Both history and the definition of ideal beauty are constantly being revised to fit the needs of fashion. Each is open to subsequent reinterpretation. In a series of untitled paintings from 1985, René Santos suggests that the documentation of history is itself subjective, and refers to the artist’s collusion in the legitimation of dubious historical truths.

Santos’ unframed rectangular canvases, medium-sized for easy dialogue, are covered with oil washes of various dull blues; a trompe l’oeil encaustic frame is set into each atmospheric color field. In some paintings this interior frame floats emptily calmly mapping out the center of the field, suggesting a formalist exercise in the psychology of pure perception or an erasure of esthetic ideals. In other paintings the frames enclose monochromatic portraits modeled on Nadar’s photographs of 19th-century French personages who made debatable contributions to their country’s cultural history: for example, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who, on the pretext of restoration, revised the Gothic cathedral to his own liking.

Portraiture is usually done in the service of the portrayed; it is self-serving documentation, a means to legitimize the significance of the subject. The artist, through the subtle manipulation and select accumulation of details—of pose, dress, lighting—can finesse interpretation to the desired meaning. Santos’ portraits are themselves subjective revisions of questionable truths; in re-presenting the photographer’s interpretation of his model in a less “infallible”: more sensual medium, the image becomes twice removed from truth, a quote of a probable misquote.

Santos has not appropriated styles or images but re-presented them out of context to underscore the subjectivity—the plurality—of truth. It is unclear, however, how he wishes this interpretive power to be used. Pluralism negates the power of the ideal, and perhaps advocates complacency. Yet Santos still seems to have faith that an accumulation of detail will elucidate a whole truth, and that history is not in the service of a definitive truth but in the service of the individual.

Katheryn Hixson