San Francisco

Jerome Caja

Force Nordstrom Gallery

This show of 150 miniatures by Jerome Caja (all works 1988) had more spunk and eloquence per square yard than any local exhibition in recent memory. Caja’s work is usually described in terms of outsider or folk art, terms that always remind me of what Big Bill Broonzy said when asked if what he did was “folk music”: “I guess all songs is folk songs,” he said,“I never heard no horse sing ’em.”

These “Cosmetic Miracles,” as the artist calls them, are painted on small change trays, saucers, squares of black flocked paper, sandpaper, wood, and Masonite. They are mounted on lace, crushed cans, scrap chrome, torch-cut lead sheets, thrift-store frames, and other urban debris. The artist’s favorite media include nail polish, eyeliner, mascara, and white-out, as well as enamel paints and inks. The painted surfaces are built up, burned, cracked, scraped, and varnished—Caja’s is an art of excess.

Most of the paintings are visionary narratives depicting a subculture of drag queens, night waitresses, and menacing clowns; these figures are seen suffering contemporary torments of the flesh, street violence, and empty kitchen loneliness. Mythological figures romp across the images, performing acts of violation and transformation (Pan sodomizes a masked figure in an alley, Bozo the Clown fucks death and steals sleep) or contrition (Saint Lucy makes an offering of her eyes.) The mortals in the paintings look like Viola Frey figures who have seen too much. In Squeezing the Holy Spirit, a woman sits in a chair holding a white dove or pigeon in her lap, as a tiny fountain of blood spurts from the bird’s breast. These mythic/mundane visions come from a place where sacred and profane have not yet split. Birth of Venus in Cleveland is a self-portrait of the artist as a young man in black bra, evening gloves, and fishnet stockings, standing in a puddle in a backyard in Cleveland. Clothes flutter on the line while ghastly putti lift Venus’ red cape.

Along with the visionary narrative works, there are a number of relatively straightforward portraits (Sailor with Pearls, done in enamel and white-out, shows great delicacy and warmth), still lifes, even landscapes (a series depicting Land’s End in enamel on fiberglass, and Golden Gate Park in eye make-up), in which virtuosic ends are achieved with extremely limited means.

Although there are some one-liners here—John the Baptist Giving Head is one of the better ones—there are also instances when subject and object come together to produce a slow, penetrating heat, as in For the Third Worldflowers or food, where a tiny painting of a black man holding a yellow flower is mounted on a red catafalque formed from a flattened McDonald’s french-fry container.

Often made in the image of religious paintings, Jerome’s creations are actually more concerned with justice than transcendence. The cracked, often explosive humor is blackened by an acute awareness of social injustice in its most naked forms, experienced on the streets and focused here into pointed hallucinations of desire and belief.

David Levi Strauss