Museum Admission: José Lerma at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Engaging all the melodrama and frivolity of commemorative portraiture, José Lerma’s most recent exhibition, currently on view at the MCA Chicago, challenges the long-since relevant historical relationship between social status and painting. Fitting the museum with a number of works ranging from painting, sculpture, and installation, Lerma combines the pomp and splendor of honorary gestures with the sharp and undercutting wit of his overly embellished, and stylized method. Beginning in the entrance, on either side of the main lobby, monumental-scaled paper portraits hint at parade floats – the two pieces entitled Marjorie Looks at Marianne and Marianne Looks at Marjorie, refer to the patrons each lounge was named after, though it would take a certain degree of rationalization to come upon those resemblances. The large inflatable masses of color have the effect of being weightless and full of air, though they lack a celebratory attitude. Made out of photographers’ backdrops, the theatrical material quality of the busts suggests a projected read over a definitive statement. Likewise, the faces are featureless and empty, and the smooth contours of the hollow paper shell are foregrounded as equally as the figures they suppose to represent – a sculpture bound to face itself indefinitely in a farcical tête-à-tête. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor

Installation view, BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: José Lerma, MCA Chicago, July 2 - December 3, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

This theme of memorializing the sponsors funding the show is one that runs through the entire exhibition – depicting subjects such as the Board of Trustees, and the bank founders funding the series of Chicago Works, Lerma creates a sense of false gratitude that is neither coy nor ironic, but matter-of fact and temperate, softened by a gentle humor. The less-than triumphant attitude provoked by the sculptures in the entrance – the cartoonish swollen piles of paper that look as half-full as they are half-empty, stage Lerma’s premise of excess as a path toward abstraction, which not only complicates, but skews a longstanding history of “social” painting. The accumulation of physical material is just one tool used to define Lerma’s formal quirk, whether in the mountainous obliteration of detail within the paper pieces, or the slightly faux-naïve, feverish, and busy drawing style within his paintings, the work favors an approximate symbol of the subject, over recognizable representation. The diverse elements in this exhibition are tied together quite nicely by an unfaithful likeness, demonstrating Lerma’s versatility when it comes to dealing with a weighted, though not necessarily current, trope within art history. As such, the social undertone of Lerma’s work questions its own relevance – after all, it has been a few centuries since these types of commissions were genuinely in vogue.

Installation view, BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: José Lerma, MCA Chicago, July 2 - December 3, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


The main galleries have a purposefully overwhelming feminine cache, placing a large emphasis on over-the-top domestic interior elements. A carpet installation, which depicts illustrative portraits of the original founders of BMO Harris Bank before the merge, occupies much of the center rotunda – made up of patterns and large forms, the piece is best viewed from a floor above via the MCA’s wrapping staircase, dissolving into decorative lines and tessellations for the viewers walking upon it at ground level. Works are also hung along the walls, but require passage onto the carpet in order to view them; the floor piece literally changes how you approach the paintings, a subtle cushioned effect, like walking on a baroque Carl André. The paintings have a predominantly pastel palette, which looks as though it was lifted directly from an 18th Century Derby figurine, but is treated less preciously than French porcelain. Ballpoint pen blues, washed out highlighter pinks, oranges, yellows, and violets, and sometimes flat-out Crayola hues, bring a vibrant and oppositional slant to the fluffy imagery. In Parterre, a flat plane of faces is scrolled in an all-over pattern across a large expanse of canvas. The ornamental treatment of the hairstyles and clothing in addition to the architectural scale suggests something more of a tapestry, or textile – though not quite as decorative. Placed atop two keyboards, the canvas’s weight is propped up against the wall, emitting a note that acts as a tragic and somewhat comedic soundtrack to the painting.

Installation view, BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: José Lerma, MCA Chicago, July 2 - December 3, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


The adjacent room is covered in a retro-reflective curtain, done up in grand drapes, whose installation gives another enforcing nod to the theatrical ambiance built up by the paper busts and the audio of the keyboard painting. Lit by white-hot spotlights, the iridescent folds create a literal silver screen that viewers can interact with, each movement causing visual disruption or moiré in the gleaming fabric. The visual interference of the piece functions as a tactile hall of mirrors; overwhelmingly about surface, the viewer never reflected in its shine. The installation pushes back, it enchants our eyes as much as it repels them. Like staring into the sun on an overcast day, the experience is phenomenal, but in a way that is hard to look at for any length of time.

Installation view, BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: José Lerma, MCA Chicago, July 2 - December 3, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Although spatial, the installation is without depth – and while the various pieces in this exhibition remain flat, the experience is anything but. The exhibition succeeds for this precise reason; while the work is about history, it is not indebted to it. In fact, if this exhibition were only about history, it would certainly gloss over quite a bit –instead, by capturing a moment where history falls flat, Lerma uses flatness as a metaphor to picture all the comedy, tragedy, and awkward pitfalls that come with out-rightly staging the social in a contemporary context.


José Lerma received his MFA in Painting at the University Wisconsin–Madison and has held residencies at the CORE Residency Program; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, Maine. He has exhibited his work widely both nationally and internationally at Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh, North Carolina; Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain; Milwaukee Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; Museum of Fine Arts Houston; and Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece, among others. Lerma lives and works in Chicago and is a Assistant Professor in the Department of Drawing and Painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work will be presented in an upcoming exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Stephanie Cristello is an artist, curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL.


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