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Studio Visit with Carlos Gamez De Francisco: Reconsidering Form

A tree-lined driveway led to a private house tucked away in the rural suburbs of Kentucky. Lavish, otherworldly, and remote, artist Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s (b. 1987) home-based studio is evocative of Medici-era patronage. Housed in a friend’s secondary home, Gamez De Francisco uses the private space to focus exclusively on his art practice.

Tree-lined driveway to Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio

Outdoor lounging area of Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio

Reminiscent of 17th century Dutch portraiture, a series of young women adorned in pearls, head dresses, and ruffled collars are posed in a manner that is both austere and elegant. The works are visually and tonally seductive as vibrant hues of red, purple, gold, and white stand stark against a black backdrop. There is a frankness in the women’s demeanor as they stare directly into the camera, implicating the viewer with their gaze. The subjects are not to be reduced as being simply beautiful. Upon closer examination what initially appears as lavish garments are objects, such as: trash bags, kitchen towels, and bedspreads, to name a few. The objects are specific to each model, carefully scoured and chosen from their homes to be recontextualized and reformed into clothing.

work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island.

Formally trained as a painter, Gamez De Francisco intentionally references painterly motifs to construct his photographic images. The history of portraiture is fraught with classism as those depicted were often in a position of status and power. Gamez De Francisco utilizes the format of portraitures’ to simultaneously empower the depicted models and dismantle portraitures’ exclusionary history. Regarding portraiture he states, “I think portraiture is the thing that is depicted the most in the history of art, I like to make portraits for that reason. What I wanted was to depict them in a position of power. I want to do the same with people of color and of different backgrounds, in the same position of power.”

The models depicted in the images are what Gamez De Francisco refers to as the “new generation of Cubans.” Born and raised in communist Cuba, Gamez De Francisco emphasized the hardships of growing up in a regime where basic everyday needs were scarce and access to the Internet or cell phones was unavailable. At 21 years old, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his career in the arts. In 2018, Gamez De Francisco traveled back to Cuba to document the new generation of Cubans with his series titled, “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island”. Prior to his project, he put out a call in Cuba for people who would be interested in being photographed; 280 people responded. When asked how he chose from 280 people, Gamez De Francisco emphasized, “I want people of different genders, races, backgrounds, and incomes.”

work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island

Opulent displays of material wealth paired with aristocratic poses that give an aura of nobility are reimagined through people of various economic classes, races, and backgrounds. Issues of diversity are at the forefront of the images. It is through portraiture that Gamez De Francisco gives the subjects a newfound sense of agency. There is a conceptual component to Gamez De Francisco’s photographic process as he goes through each individual model’s home to find various objects that can be transformed into a garment or accessory. The quality of objects can range from jewelry to utilitarian items like trash bags, which through the process of manipulation and recontextualization warps the original meaning of the objects and constructs a more powerful narrative through image-making. Regardless of the model’s background or quality of items represented in the picture, the motif of portraiture aesthetically eradicates unstable power discrepancies through the visual language associated with bourgeois portrait culture.

screen shot of Henrik Kersten’s photographs. Courtesy of Google Images

Unlike the Dutch photographer Henrik Kersten (b. 1956) who also uses repurposed materials like plastic bags and napkins to recreate a formal likeness to Dutch portraiture, Gamez De Francisco subverts the Eurocentric paradigm of portraiture found in the canon of art history. He does this by not only incorporating people of color but by interviewing each subject which allows the depicted to be an active participant in the construction of their image. Personal narrative is imbued into the subject’s personal items which incorporates a level of intimacy and ownership that is not initially apparent but activates the portraits in a way that destabilizes both the colonial and male gaze.

commissioned watercolor portraits and abstract painting in-progress

Interested in further expanding his studio practice, Gamez De Francisco likes to challenge himself by working in different styles and media. He is still working within the style of portraiture, however there is a stylistic transition that is centered on exploring the technical aspects of painting. His solo exhibition at Miller Gallery in Cincinnati this year titled, “Modern Nobility, The Art of Carlos Gamez De Francisco” involved painting in front of a live audience, adding a performative quality to the act of painting. Having formally trained as a painter, breaking free of its technical limitations and challenging the parameters of the medium itself are always a points of consideration.

Apart from the painting-based performance, Gamez De Francisco likes to work with watercolor paint because of its unforgiving and spontaneous characteristics. The paint is hard to handle due to its lack of texture, and the loose translucent quality of the pigment tends to spread rather than hold. It appears less calculated yet takes an instinctual precision to ensure the paint moves and applies as directed. Intention is less mediated, as control is viable only up to a certain point as the medium is unable to be tamed completely. Unlike his photographs which are meticulously staged and executed, his watercolor portraits have a gestural ephemerality. The quality is markedly soft in comparison to the polished finish of his Baroque-like photographs.

mural in-progress at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky

Gamez De Francisco having a conversation in front of mural at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky

The aesthetic composition of his watercolors with loose calligraphic forms and muddled pops of colors are being challenged on a much larger scale as Gamez De Francisco is currently working on a wall mural for the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky. The scope of this project is in direct contrast to the temporal constraints of the watercolor portraits seen in his studio, where works are executed in a much more unrehearsed manner with inevitably shorter time and labor constraints.

The most evident stylistic shift that was seen during the studio visit was Gamez De Francisco’s blatant effort to deviate from pictorial representation. A circular canvas with textured strokes of oil paint in various patches of light blue, white, red, and pink rests unfinished, a work in-progress. For Gamez De Francisco, Abstract Expressionism is new territory that results in a different type of aesthetic experience. With no recognizable meaning the viewer is forced to contemplate and simply experience the work. Like the viewer, the artist is also confronted with the freedom of non-representational ways of painting. The formlessness of abstraction comes with new sets of decision-making that pose challenges of its own.

Although this stylistic transition is conceptually new, Gamez De Francisco has had a penchant for abstract thinking from a young age. He recalls one of his earliest memories of drawing from when he was six years old. His father was in the kitchen explaining how water comes out of the faucet. Fascinated with the faucet’s ability to release water, Gamez De Francisco became enamored with the idea of drawing running water. This was a concern for his mother, as she felt her son’s desire to draw moving water warranted a visit to the local psychiatrist. According to Gamez De Francisco this was a seminal moment for him, “At 6 years old I was determined I wanted to be an artist.”

This level of decisiveness and determination made Gamez De Francisco resort to savvy tactics in his attempt to paint during a period in his life where resources were limited. It was during this time that the United States of America sanctioned an embargo on exports to Cuba that resulted in Cubans having to get creative within their material constraints. Gamez De Francisco would mix watercolors with toothpaste in an attempt to achieve the quality of oil paint, and used found pieces of cardboard as a substitute for canvas. This single-minded resourcefulness has carried into his art practice today.

Gamez De Francisco is disciplined and methodical in his approach to painting. He emphasized his rigorous daily routine that is fueled with an incessant need to make work that is always contingent on improvement. The secluded environment of the Kentucky countryside in which his studio resides allows for no distractions and enables an almost obsessive focus on making work. The grounds are both scenic and isolating, which recall a pre-Modernist model of an art studio.

However, it is not just the environment that won him over. Gamez De Francisco quite deliberately chose to have his art practice based in Louisville. In 2017, he moved to study at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. However, he recently moved back because of Louisville’s art community. He says, “I prefer Louisville because of the people, they love to support art and in an art scene that is not large. There is so many people that love art.” There is a culture of support, inclusivity, and passion that resonates with Gamez De Francisco on a deeper level and one he considers to be pertinent to a creative community.

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In Their Own Words

Listen to interviews gathered for our segments on Eastern Standard, the weekly public affairs radio magazine on WEKU.  Click on the images to listen to UnderMain’s Art Shechet, in conversation with Speed Museum contemporary arts curator Miranda Lash; Tatiana Gant, executive director of the Montana Arts Council discussing with Sky Marietta the value to rural artists of their “Artrepreneur” program; and Wendy Barnett sitting down with Ave Lawyer, co-founder of Lexington’s unique On The Verge theatre company, and actors Kevin Hardesty and Rachel Lee Rogers to discuss the production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two.

Miranda Lash, Speed Art Museum curator of contemporary art

Tatiana Gant, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council

Kevin Hardesty, Rachel Lee Rogers in A Doll’s House, Part II

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Tunis: Travels With Tim

The life of most working musicians, if they strive for any kind of notice outside their hometown following, involves being a journeyman. Tim Easton is no exception, although in his case, the traveling comes naturally.

Whether it was the seven year stretch he spent gigging though London, Paris, Madrid and more or the scores of Stateside locales he has called home, stretching from Akron to Joshua Tree, Easton has remained an artist on the move. In fact, after he makes a return visit to Lexington via a June 19 concert at The Burl, he will be off to shows in Alaska, the Netherlands and Estonia before 2019 winds down.

Tim Easton Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

It’s no wonder then that “Exposition,” the latest in a series of sterling solo albums by the veteran songsmith, was also made on the road. Travel, it seems, is more than a mere work requisite. For Easton, it’s an integral part of his existence.

“It started out young,” he said recently by phone during a brief “nesting” stay at a rented country home in Leipers Fork, Tenn. “It started out when my parents moved to Japan. I, being in the second grade, had to go with them. So what started out as something in my youth has now grown into a lifestyle. I feel comfortable traveling. I love to see new places and mostly the people in those places. It has made me, I suppose, something of an armchair anthropologist.”

Protect Me
Easton’s travels have taken him to Lexington on a regular basis for over two decades, whether it was through introductory shows as a member of the Haynes Boys at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club or high profile opening act sets for artists like Lucinda Williams to more distinctive shows and settings. Among the latter was a 2007 stop at the Christ the King Oktoberfest where Easton offered a song titled “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” It stood for “Jesus Protect Me From Your Followers.” “Not all of them,” the song went in a sheepishly confessional tone. “Just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred.”

Fortifying those performances were recordings rooted in folk-related narratives and accents that shifted from Byrds-like lyricism, such as 2006’s “Ammunition” (the record that featured the original version of “J.P.M.F.Y.F”), to the unadorned solo acoustics of 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” (which featured a starker update of the tune retitled as “Jesus Protect Me”).

“The life of the songwriter or writer involves constant observation, note taking and a fair bit of travel, I’d say,” Easton said. “With all of my favorites, from Hemingway to Woody Guthrie – with any writer, really – there seems to be a fair amount of traveling in their lives. Mark Twain had a lot to say about it, about the traveling, about what it does for you.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“I feel the same way about America, about our country. I wish more people could actually see the third world just so they could be grateful for how great we actually do have it here, even though all around us, everywhere, there is extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Yes, the balance is difficult. But going to a third world country really helps put it all in perspective.”

Easton’s newest album, “Exposition,” due out just five days before his Burl concert, takes even further advantage of traveling as a modus operandi for making music. It was cut in very portable fashion at numerous locations favored mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical appeal. Among them were the Okemah Historical Society (Okemah, Okla. being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie) and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues giant Robert Johnson famously recorded in 1936).

“Today you can record almost anywhere you wish simply because technology has made it possible,” Easton said. “So pop-up studios, or setting up studios in a house or a comfortable location, become so easy. You wake up, make some coffee, have some breakfast and get to work. It’s like anywhere else. The room definitely dictates the vibe.

“I had a plan to make two very stripped-down folk albums in a row (“Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” being the first) in order that I might be able to survive in the modern music business. In other words, the plan was not to spend above my means in regard to fancy studios, backing bands and producers. Instead, I wanted to make the kind of record that I would love to listen to around the house, which are solo folk albums. Really, that’s what this was all about. I plan on returning to the full band and all that for the next one. But in the meantime, I wanted to make two stripped-down folk albums of exactly the music you would expect when someone saw me live and said, ‘I’d like to buy some music from you.’ You can hand them basically what they just saw and heard.”

Plot Exposition
The 10 songs making up “Exposition” play out in varying ways. Some possesses a theme that is detectable within its title, such as “Don’t Speculate, Participate,” a call for action at election time or, as Easton terms it, “an apathy busting anthem.”

“If you don’t give a damn, then you’ve nothing to say,” Easton sings a manner more soft-spoken than scolding. “If you won’t give a damn, step out of the way.”

“I’m not trying to tell anybody who to vote for. I just have this feeling that if more of us participated, more of us would be satisfied with the results. If more people participated, it would just be a happier society. Also, that entire expression came from when I was marching in London way back in the day. I was marching to raise awareness for a guy who was in prison. His name was Nelson Mandela. All these big artists – Big Audio Dynamite, Boy George, Sting, Billy Bragg – sang at it. At one point, this guy with a green pointy haired mohawk said, ‘Don’t spectate, participate.’ So I filed that phrase and used it to kind of address voter participation. Simple as that.”

Balancing such directness are “Saint Augustine” and “New Year’s Day,” less obvious requiems for a battered soul whose life tribulations largely mirrored Easton’s own.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“A lot of times a song will be autobiographical, but in such a way that it could be about anybody. In this case, I woke up in Saint Augustine and wrote those words down. Then I finished the song in Spain months later on a train. No one else was in the compartment with me, so I just finished it there. It’s definitely a requiem for the destructive life I was living.

“As you’ll see in ‘New Year’s Day,’ I’ve had gone through some personal things in the last couple of years. I got divorced. We have a child, so it’s been an interesting nesting period for me. I’m just happy to say that we all get along and we all want to support each other in the work we do.”

Glorious perseverance
For the better part of his career, Easton has been an independent recording artist. There was an extended period spent with the Americana-leaning New West Records (distilled on the fine 2013 anthology “Before the Revolution”), but even then, he worked far afield from major label pull and promotion.

Today, Easton is the CEO of a one-man operation. That means on “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” and “Exposition” Easton handled nearly everything on his own, from the recording to the packaging to the distribution of his songs.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“By music business standards, I’m not really selling the kinds of numbers that enable a whole record company to carry on. But with my little folk stuff, I’m able to live comfortably and really enjoy myself as a traveler. I’m able to blend into society enough to be able to observe it. So it’s, like, the best. I don’t have financial stress, but I work hard. I travel a lot. I perform a lot.

“Also, as president of the record company, I give myself the occasional bonus. That occasional bonus is to go fishing somewhere, eat a good meal every so often and treat myself with respect. I struggle, but then I also persevere. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but mostly it’s glorious perseverance. How about that? Really, I’m very lucky. I get to travel around the world and play music.

“I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I can pick a guitar just fine and I have stories to tell. I’ve honed my solo act into way more of an entertaining time because of observations of people and my heroes at work over the years. I’ve learned to put on a better show as a solo artist. I can do it by myself, so why not? It’s way easier on the company payroll, too.”

Tim Easton performs at 7 p.m. June 19 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets are $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to www.theburlky.com.

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Arts Tasting Menu

A handcut tasting of cultural delicacies from Lexington, the region, and beyond.

Some early summer tasting delights for you.

Appetizer

Paint The Town, Arts Connect, Saturday, June 29th. Check-in and late registration 8-9AM, Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center.

Kate Savage’s Arts Connect one-day plein air extravaganza, open to all artists. A half-day of painting followed by framing and hanging the show, and then a reception and awards. Come out to downtown Lexington to see and support artists at work.

Entree

Ebony G. Patterson: …while the dew is still on the roses… The Speed Art Museum, Louisville. June 21, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

The former UK SAVS faculty member, a rising star in the arts firmament, takes over an entire a floor of the Speed’s contemporary wing for a site-specific installation exhibiting large-scale paintings, tapestries, and videos while also installing cloth wallpaper and flower and vegetal growths from the ceiling and walls. Gardens are prominent in the artist’s work and evoke a multitude of often conflicting emotions.

. . . a wailing black horse . . . for those who bear/bare witness, 2018. Hand-cut jacquard woven photo tapestry with glitter, appliqués, pins, embellishments, fabric, tassels, brooches, acrylic, glass pearls, beads, hand-cast and hand-embellished heliconias, shelf, and handembellished resin owl, on artist-designed fabric wallpaper

Dessert

Off the Menu: Looking at Food. UK Art Museum, Lexington. Thru August 11, 2019.

Works from the museum’s permanent collection supplemented by works borrowed from private collections and artists, are used to investigate our relationship to food. Provocative and insightful, the exhibition reveals how complex that relationship really is.

Julie Jacquette, A Constant Stream, 2014.
Oil on linen