Benito Huerta

Lynn Goode Gallery

Three years ago at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, Benito Huerta showed semiabstract works with geopolitical overtones, which were obsessively painted and socially conscious, but dull. While he was working on that series he put aside other ideas that he felt hadn’t gelled, or didn’t fit the sequence. Huerta says his new work “is about my own ideas and their dissonant tone against my oeuvre and within its own body.” For sheer energy and imagination, this salon-style explosion of dissonant bad-boy paintings blew the “good” but boring CAM show to bits.

Huerta’s images cover the spectrum from high-Modernist abstractions to biker art, yet it is pointless to critique each painting in terms of its “genre.” Huerta has created his own genre, assimilating failure into his painterly vocabulary alongside obvious technical accomplishment. Many paintings have virtuoso passages of real imaginative power, such as the grisaille totem pole of nightmarish cartoons popping out of an incandescent orange background in Cast of Characters, 1993. Other works are abandoned student paintings that Huerta alters by adding his own imagery, remaining faithful to the klutzy style of the original works. In one vaguely Cubist still life of bottles, bowls, and antlers, for instance, it is difficult to distinguish where the painting stops and the embellishment begins. With styles, attitudes, and levels of ambition as divergent as these, conventional connoisseurship falters.

Discussing another multiple-stylist, Martin Kippenberger, Burkhard Riemschneider wrote: “All paintings serving truth are bad.” By that logic the “worst”—that is to say, the best—thing about Huerta’s show is the courage with which it tackles repressed or suppressed subject matter. Many of these paintings simply couldn’t be shown in a lot of museums. In spite of lovely pastel colors and exquisitely hand-rendered typography, the pastiche of words such as “Asshole,” “Cocksucker,” and “Motherfucker” in Brave New World, 1993, wouldn’t stand a chance against right-wing legionnaires of decency, and a thinly disguised swastika called Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1991–93 (alluding to “supremacist,” get it?), might be deemed too ambiguous to pass the p.c. police.

However, many of Huerta’s images actually do have underlying messages of which both left and right could approve. For example, Noche de los Muertos, 1991–93, depicts a skull against a viridian background with an orange, penis-headed snake coiling in and out of its eye sockets. This image would make a bitchin’ tattoo, and seems calculated to send the heartiest curator scurrying for the exit. But it did not enhance my appreciation to learn that it was “about” AIDS. Couldn’t that be said of any painting combining symbols of eros and thanatos? Similarly, a ludicrous recurring image of a snake-duck in a top hat winding its way down a pole could evoke any number of absurd horrors. To hear that it represented a tapeworm crawling around the insides of children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border added nothing but topicality to the painting. Topicality, too, could be “bad,” but I don’t think that was the artist’s intent.

Tom Moody