The Limitless Possibilities of Firelei Báez at the Richard Heller Gallery

Firelei Báez’ solo show “Not Even Unalterable Limitations” at the Richard Heller Gallery is saturated with dense color and rich content.  While at her show, I repeatedly heard the muffled sound of visitors oohing and aahing their awe and approval from the gallery’s large entryway, before even fully stepping inside.

Firelei Báez |  Something Lost, Weathered and Beautiful, 2011, gouache on paper
Photo Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

As Báez’ first west coast solo debut, “Not Even Unalterable Limitations” packs a punch, with a handful of varied and various styles, mediums, and forms.  Although most of the works were made with gouache and ink or graphite, their styles and looks vary drastically.  From the large cutout CPT Symmetry that greets viewers on the first wall, to the larger rectangular framed Ciguapa Habilis, to the massive show-stopping grids formed in the back corner by Can I Pass? and her Prescribed Seduction series, Báez dertainly draws you in. - Ellen Caldwell, LA Contributor

Every couple of pieces varied stylistically.  And every time there was a change, I was reminded vaguely of another artist – whether because of similar styles, subjects, arrangements, or content.  However, each time another artist was invoked, I would notice something that Báez has done to make the work entirely standalone, unique, and her own.

Firelei Báez | Ciguapa Habilis (after Carl Linneaus), 2011, gouache and ink on paper, 72 x 102 inches
Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

One of Báez’ stylistic traits feature large gouaches of disjunctured and fragmented bodies, as seen in Ciguapa Habilis at this exhibit.  These works are at once similar to and often compared to that of Wangechi Mutu.  However, they are also similar to one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things and differ drastically in message from both the former and the latter.

While Mutu and Báez both engage in art that challenges and explores identity and what a fragmented identity might look like, Mutu’s work is more violent in her total deconstruction, amputation, mutilation, and reconstruction of the female body.  While Báez blurs and disrupts the lines and forms of the physical human body, she does so with a playful aesthetic that references a similarly biting history. Surrounding the unrecognizable form at the center of Ciguapa Hablis (after Carl Linneaus), Báez’ penciled cursive notations construct, restrict, and categorize this female’s form.

Firelei Báez | Can I Pass? Introducing the paper bag to the fan test for the month of February, 2011, gouache on paper, 124 x 124 inches, Photo Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

28 self-portraits made during the month of February are also showcased in a calendar-like grid on the back wall.  The self-portraits showcase silhouettes of daily varying hairstyles, but Báez’ eyes always remain sharp, focused, and detailed. Large, animated brushstrokes fill in the void of the silhouetted faces, creating an almost mask-like appearance.  However, that sense is shattered because Báez’ eyes are so detailed that they feel and look intensely human.

Firelei Báez |Can I Pass? – DETAIL

Firelei Báez |Can I Pass? – DETAIL

Again, this act and construction seemed to recall or reference Lorna Simpson and her self-portraits such as Five Day Forecast (1988) or Guarded Condition (1989). And while there may or may not be a conscious reference point there, Báez’ does something different than Simpson, who purposely used her body but not her face in her works.  Instead, Báez puts herself into the portraits by showcasing just her eyes.  There is an active reclamation here that goes beyond what the gallery’s press release references as “engag[ing] and resist[ing] the gaze.”  She in fact is the active gaze looking out of the papers.

Firelei Báez | Prescribed Seduction, 2012, #’s 1-76, gouache and ink on paper, Various sizes
Photo Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

Firelei Báez | Prescribed Seduction – DETAIL

This series of self-portraits leads seamlessly to another grid series Prescribed Seduction.  In this series, Báez reworks pages from books, by delicately painting and drawing silhouetted figures throughout the pages.  On the surface, these figures appear playful as they seem to play a game throughout the grid of the gallery wall.  However, given the subject of Baez’ other works combined with the title, it is clear that something far more serious lurks beneath the games.   Some body types and specific poses repeat on multiple pages, though in different sizes and manners.

The grid itself has a long history and I couldn’t help but think about Báez’ use of it here. In Rosalind Krauss’s “Grids,” Krauss suggests that the grid is a subject of twentieth century artists that “functions to declare the modernity of modern art.”  But the grid also carries with it the burden of another past.  As a tool of the Enlightenment and of taxonomy and anthropometry, it carries a history of pseudo science as white Europeans used it to measure, map out, and document head shapes and body sizes in order to classify everything and everyone into a “proper” place which could consequently be used to justify colonialism, slavery, and sheer dehumanization. It is a darker historical referent to the grid that I cannot imagine Báez overlooks.

And again, this construction of the grid is somewhat reminiscent of, but vastly different from the grids of Ellen Gallagher, Yinka Shonibare, or Wosene Kosrof.  Gallagher’s grids, for example, feature deconstructed advertisements with demon-like models whose eyes have been cut out to reveal vast white emptiness—quite the opposite of and to Báez’ self portraits which seem to be beating and breathing their own life beneath the painted surface.

Firelei Báez | CPT symmetry (echoing Marie Levaux’s manipulations of the elusive mirror image of matter), 2012, gouache and graphite on paper, 80 x 69 inches

In both CPT symmetry and Not Even Unalterable Limitations, Báez depicts portraits of females gazing directly at the viewer.  Detailed brushstrokes are circular and cyclical throughout the backgrounds. Loud colors are painted beneath and above dark, geometric backgrounds, making the paintings appear old and young at once as the neons chime through.  I have heard the saying that “God is in the details” and this rings true with Báez’ work.  Her art lies in the details that she  builds upon and references, simultaneously differentiating her work from a rich tradition while also creating her own.

Firelei Báez | Not Even Unalterable Limitations, 2012, gouache on graphite on canvas, 56 x 49.5 inches
Photo Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

Firelei Báez | Not Even Unalterable Limitations – DETAIL


Firelei Báez’ solo show “Not Even Unalterable Limitations” runs through May 5th at the Richard Heller Gallery. Báez also has an upcoming solo show, "Mastering Metamorphosis: You Be," at the Sheppard Gallery in Reno, NV.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.

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