New York

José Gabriel Fernández

Lombard-Fried Projects

For the last three years José Gabriel Fernández has been investigating the rituals and conventions of bullfighting, drawing his inspiration in part from writings on the subject by Georges Bataille, André Masson, and Michel Leiris. One’s impression on entering Fernandez’s recent show was that the artist had converted the gallery into a museum exhibition space divided into three areas. The partitioning served to guide the visitor around in a deliberate progression through the complex installation that takes the sport as myth and metaphor.

The first area is dominated by Anatomía de la suerte (Anatomy of fate, 1998), a pair of toreador’s pants made of steel mesh displayed on a blonde-wood table with a matching jacket hanging from the wall. A seemingly decorative red motif printed on the wall picks up the patterning on the shiny fabric. In the next area, a second “suit of lights,” as the costume is known, is laid out on a ’50s-style chair, the pants neatly folded on the seat and the embroidered jacket, which has round holes cut through the fabric, hung backward on the chair (like a kneeling figure). The walls are covered with bright yellow patterns that imbue this space with a golden sheen. In the third area, a videotape shows an assistant helping the toreador dress for the tournament. The action appears on the dark screen in three circles, like peepholes, that echo the holes in the gold suit. Picking up the theme of “The Autobiographer as Torero,” in which Leiris equates the exposure of writing autobiography to that of the bullfighter in the arena, Fernández teases the audience with the sense that he is on the verge of revealing some crucial fact that is never spelled out.

Between these three distinct spaces various items are displayed: a series of watercolors, a bureau of modern design supporting a television monitor (which shows an image of hands sewing inside a round, reddish form), and a bullfighter’s cape with gleaming metal spikes. In a corner of the gallery, on a shelf, a wooden box provides some clues to the work. Inside it, wooden sewing patterns for a toreador costume have been run through by a steel needle like a sword. El Costurero de luces (Sewing-box of lights, 1997), in its evident connection to the Boîte-en-Valise, 1941, raises the flag of Duchamp over the installation. Both Bataille and Leiris discuss the bullfighter as a bride, and Fernández extends the metaphor to suggest an analogy with Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915–22. The “suit of lights” clearly alludes to the wedding gown; if we figure the bullfighter as bride, then the nebulous orgasm of the Large Glass takes on significance as the bloody death of the bull, or perhaps the matador’s goring. The crimson marks on the steel suit signal that inevitable fatality, while the golden aura of the second suit suggests the sunlit arena. The patterns in El Costurero de luces pick up the Large Glass’ “malic molds”—those ironic figurations of the bachelors—replacing the empty spinning of the chocolate grinder with the lethal sword.

Fernández’s installation operates as a set of inversions, not only of Duchamp’s Large Glass but of the taurine mythology associated with modern art at least since Manet and Picasso. It also targets the rhetoric of the white cube, contaminating its own museumlike spaces with domestic furniture and decorative wall treatments. In South America gay men used to be referred to as invertidos, perhaps because their desire inverted a social order both authoritarian and macho. Fernández’s installation can be understood both as an inversion of a canonical work and as a homosexualization of modern tradition; the strategies are one and the same.

Carlos Basualdo