The language surrounding José Lerma’s practice rolls out like the first chapter of a starter book on fine art: Lerma’s work is about memory and painting, exhibition and childhood, media and the power of a visual experience, and truing the personal and the historical. The artist himself describes his work even more openly, as about “other art and his parents,” referencing context and history but not specifying why or where. While overly-broad, the conceptual structure the artist uses is far more traditional than ironic, and its lack of specificity makes a good explanation for why “The Lightweight” feels so familiar despite the unusual gestures employed.
The second and smaller gallery at Western Exhibitions is among the best venues in Chicago for artists looking to fully transform a space. Lerma’s installations often involve a degree of handholding and forced interaction, but the second gallery allowed Lerma to immerse audiences in his installation. Reflective curtains and parachute fabric are stitched along the walls, edging around and covering canvases hung behind, making a tripped-out disaster parody of a French salon exhibition.
Installation view of Rampant Mid-Careerism in "The Lightweight" at Western Exhibitions. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions.
Canvases hidden behind the parachute fabric make up Lerma’s Rampant Mid-Careerism, their scattered relative heights bringing together the implicit critical structure of installation at the French salon (where the worst works were hung the highest up) and the shaky valleys of value for works by artists not yet dead. One painting rests on the keys of an electronic keyboard, a standby atmospheric gesture for the artist, haunting the space with sounds from a glass harmonium at low volume.
José Lerma. The Lightweight. Mixed media. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions.
For the show’s centerpiece, the eponymous installation work The Lightweight, Lerma screen-printed a Le Charivari comic, published in 1880, showing an unfortunate artist encouraging guests to view his poorly placed paintings through a telescope. Printed in varnish on the reflective curtain, the cartoon is barely visible—except when one is standing in just the right spot, on a provided milk-crate, where two spotlights reveal it against a direct blaze.
Though Lerma’s signature personal-historical portraiture is represented in this exhibition by three graphite-on-paper drawings, “The Lightweight” is less concerned with the artist’s history than his present, reaching into history to establish an uncomfortable continuity with other painters. This too is a deceptively traditional gesture, despite the cool materials and execution, but Lerma’s contextual awareness is part of what make him a favorite among other artists, and why “The Lightweight” feels so confident in its nervous newness.
-Steve Ruiz, Contributing ArtSlant Writer