Altar with Mask and Strip Lights (Symbiofaerietaxiplasm, 2015), 2022, Fire alarm, light switch, screws, acrylic, wax pastel, glue relief on panel, 24.25 x 36.25 x 3.25 inches. Image courtesy of the artist. On view with Grove Collective at their Grove East location October 14th - November 13th, 2022.
Ernesto Renda’s Ridgewood studio is bright. The lights—which, upon moving in, he personally installed—are a cold, unforgiving white, their light softened only slightly by an adjacent bay window. Yet the studio itself is not uninviting; even though Ernesto had just moved in, there were a generous number of camping chairs laid out for visitors. Instead, the light only makes clear that within the studio, there is nowhere for anything, not least Ernesto’s own work, to hide. If I had ever felt that I’d exhaustively scrutinized one of his works, it became evident that I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what the artist himself subjects them to.
Of course, this attention is imperative: There are enough moving parts in any one of Ernesto’s works, both intellectually and literally, that a singular lapse can threaten an entire piece. Consider his process: he begins with what he calls his “first image,” drawn with successively built-up layers of hot glue on board, before moving on to his “second image,” drawn in pastel on black fabric stretched over the raised glue line drawing, insisting on a kind of palimpsestic layering of the two images. The result is as profound as it is confounding; a cognitive dualism manifest, the viewer holding two images equally.
Altar with Bones and Twigs (Radical Faerie Sanctuaries, 2015), 2022, steel air vent, screws, acrylic, wax pastel, canvas, glue relief on panel, 24.25 x 36.25 x 2.5 inches. Images courtesy of the artist. On view with Grove Collective at their Grove East location October 14th - November 13th, 2022.
More recently, he has extended his process to include wall fixtures: light switches and coat hooks provide now a third layer, introducing public and dialogical elements. If the first two images—the glue and fabric drawings—function as abstractions of moving images, then these wall fixtures site the work, acting as phenomenological clues towards the simulation of the projection of those images, but projections to places altogether nondescript, both personal and public. As Ernesto puts it, these works “are like transporting slices of a wall,” but these walls are both bedrooms and classrooms, living rooms and hospitals, the final answer dependent on a negotiation with the viewer and the spaces they inhabit.
Roman (after BALLS DEEP, 2007), 2022, outlet plate, acrylic, wax pastel, canvas, glue relief on panel, 47 x 72 x 2.5 inches, Private collection, Chicago, IL. Image courtesy of Jack Siebert Projects.Much as it sounds, the process is both complex and laborious. Yet great complexity is resolved with remarkable ease. Ernesto—perhaps necessarily—demonstrates a formidable compositional acuity, careful to never overpopulate works to the point of visual obscurity. Take, for example, Roman (after BALLS DEEP, 2007) (2022): Ernesto deftly uses the reflection of light against the porcelain tiles of the bathroom in his “second,” pastel image to draw the viewer towards the outlines of a face in his “first image” below. The inverse can be said of the use of light against the white porcelain of the urinal in the bottom right of the work, drawing the eye towards the “second image” and away from the detail of the underlying glue work. Finally, his wall fixtures complete the image: the drawn line wraps over an electrical outlet screwed to the painting surface, suggesting the materiality of the image as a projection on a wall. It is this interplay that circles us back to the analogy of mental dualism, allowing two distinct images, and an even greater number of visual cues, to cohabitate on the canvas without devolving into oblivion.
***Ernesto guides me through the remaining boxes; past piles of pastels and boxes of unmelted glue. He tells me he is still splitting time between here and his apartment, having moved out of his Silver Art Projects studio residency at the World Trade Center. I notice, on a fold-out picnic table to the left of the room, a number of VHS tapes, along with a player and a small monitor. When I first met Ernesto, almost a year ago now, we spoke about his love of film, and the role it plays in his practice. We discussed Vito Russell’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet and its 1995 filmic adaptation, both seminal incursions into the practice of “queering” Hollywood films; how they had informed his own modes of meaning-making1. Ernesto tracks the development of his recent works about film back to the first month of the pandemic, when he was living in his parents’ dark basement in New Jersey, watching multiple movies every day.
During that meeting over a year ago, Ernesto showed me some of the earlier works in this style, artifacts of a process in flux. He had yet to systematize his image-making, each work a new experiment in honing a unique way of working. Yet, the crux of the practice and its insistence on meaning-making not within but between images, notably drawing from Soviet montage theory, had emerged. Thinking back to that visit, the works were infectious in their unabashed approach to viewerly labor. To engage with Ernesto’s art is to dive head-first into a series of open-ended questions, through which the artist leads us not to answers, but a shared commitment to interrogation, bearing with it the vulnerability of uncertainty.
In his new Ridgewood studio, I look at the monitor and the VHS tapes: cogs in a system now well-developed, and more incisive than ever. His influences—once personal and indistinct, stolen frames from years of peeking into his mother’s work as a cultural anthropologist—have become more codified. Hearing Ernesto talk about the role of the viewer, I think of Christian Metz, who suggests a Lacanian identificatory position with the camera2. While we often don’t consider our own relationship to the camera when watching films, it’s imperative to Ernesto’s work that the viewer can find themselves in the viewpoint of the camera’s lens. Indeed, to assume agency over the act of looking, particularly in a filmic context, the viewer must allow themselves to be the seer. To do so is to assume a presence with the subject; otherwise, the viewer remains guarded, a distant voyeur.
Backstabbing (after CRUISING, 1980), 2021, wax pastel, acrylic, canvas, glue relief on board, 36 x 72 x 3 inches. Private collection, S. Korea. Image courtesy of In Lieu Gallery, Los Angeles.
Wig (The Arrest of Norman Bates, after PSYCHO, 1960), 2021, wax pastel on canvas, glue relief on board, 40 x 60 x 2.5 inches. Private collection, Houston, TX. Image courtesy of In Lieu Gallery, Los Angeles.
In turn, the questions Ernesto poses have become more coherent over time. Now he focuses primarily on the depiction of queer subcultures, tapping into a social—particularly heterosexual—desire to enjoy perceived sexual aberrance vicariously through a supposedly “investigative” context in both documentary and narrative film. This media itself underscores a cultural fascination with atypical and queer sexual communities, while the parameters of this fascination, and the modes through which it is repesented, have often been delineated and decided upon without members of the communities themselves. In doing so, Ernesto needles delicately at questions of “good” and “bad” representation, while leading the viewer to discourses around “compulsory heterosexuality” and “heteronormativity”; such thinking considers a heterosexual gaze as a default, socialized mode of depiction, which feels self-evident to even the casual viewer of his cited films. Ernesto explores the reappropriation of queer utopias and utopian subcultures in order to articulate heterosexual utopias, finding material in narrative films such as Psycho (1960), Cruising (1980), Shame (2011), anthropological documentaries and TV journalism like HBO’s Real Sex (1995), Vice News’ Balls Deep (2007), The Gift (2003), The Homosexuals (1967), and Meth (2006), Faerie Tales (1992), Glitter (2011), among others.
The Homosexuals (after CBS REPORTS, 1967), 2020, wax pastel and acrylic on canvas, glue relief on board, 11 x 14 x 1 inches. Private collection, Los Angeles, CA. Image courtesy of the artist.
***The idea that utopia has some inherent queerness is well-trodden ground, largely thanks to the work of the late José Esteban Muñoz and his book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity3. This queerness was also alluded to in Foucaultian conceptions of utopia and their realized analogues, heterotopias4. As Foucault writes in “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”:
“Utopias are sites with no real place,” but that “there are real places—places that do exist and that
are formed in the very founding of society—which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted…[called] heterotopias.”
This “inversion” already bears an expressed queerness in its insistence of both difference and opposition to the dominant social structure. In this sense, the vicarious enjoyment of sexual aberrance by a heteronormative gaze finds a solid foundation: sexual atypicality—or, expressed otherwise, (endless) utopian sexual possibility—whether explicitly queer or not, is queered by virtue of its utopianism. With this in mind, an ontological linkage is made, with the appropriative, heteronormative gaze able to rearticulate utopia in terms that reflect compulsory heterosexuality. Elements of queer subcultures, ranging from orgiastic nonreproductive sex to intentional living communities that decentralize the nuclear family, become fodder for the compulsory straight gaze to project itself into that which its own inhibiting limits reject. As a result, straightness is able to escape this existential bind through a kind of identificatory loophole, while queerness remains in the margins.
Accordingly, the work of the viewer—actually, the opportunity for the viewer to work at all—takes on great significance. Identification with the camera, almost paradoxically, functions as a key operation in the dislocation of these otherwise naturalized modes of seeing which insist on coopting queer sociality for heternormative pleasure. In order to combat this, Ernesto will typically use B-roll—location or otherwise complementary footage—as his brighter, more easily perceived second image. In doing so, he gives the viewer the opportunity to first come to the image as themselves, identifying with a neutral perspective, before they’ve been tacitly inculcated into a subjectivity of the camera. Location images allow the viewer to mentally situate themselves in a space, while images of people, particularly when in reference to filmic composition, already suggest a proxy subjectivity that can be almost impossible to dislodge. With the viewer given entry to the work on their own terms, they can begin to see how unnatural and pernicious the camera’s representation of individuals can be, allowing them to draw parallels between what they see and what they are being shown.
What’s more, these kinds of shots often act as analogues or ellipses for more graphic images, with the figurative “wink wink” of a well-timed cutaway often acting in lieu of sex, allowing the stage to be set for a more conisderate viewing of the underlying image. If it is the cutaway that holds the sexual charge, a metonym for that which the heteronormative gaze can’t explicitly identify, then Ernesto flips this on its head. Instead, the cutaway image becomes the site of neutralization, the blank slate from which the viewer is able to appraise the person in the underlying image.
Backroom (after SHAME, 2011), 2022, wax pastel on canvas, glue relief on panel, 12 x 18 x 2 inches. Image courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, Los Angeles.
***Ernesto and I sit down in our camping chairs, and between checking his phone for updates on his impending grocery delivery, he explains that much of this thinking has been concretized most recently in his Altar series. Using images taken from short films exploring the Radical Faerie movement that became popular in the United States, and then globally, from the 1970s onward, Ernesto looks to rectify what he understands as the “bad” representation of the intrusive, compulsorily heterosexual gaze, while applying his mode of working to an explicitly utopian source material.
Windsock (after FAERIE TALES, 1992), 2022, light-switch, acrylic, wax pastel, canvas, glue relief on panel, 24 x 36 x 2.5 inches. Private collection, Philadelphia, PA. Image courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, Los Angeles.The Radical Faerie movement, founded in 1979 by Gay Rights activists Harry Hay and Don Kilhefner in Los Angeles, is intended to combine elements of secular spiritualism with a radical rejection of hetero- and homonormative lifestyles through the establishment of intentional living communities. As expressed by members in a series of interviews, Radical Faeries, and their designated communities, “hold the space to be free,” encouraging a refusal of socialized systems and taxonomies, including gender binaries, while engaging in neo-paganistic rituals that induce a heightened perception of nature. With that said, such freedoms allow for a spectrum of adherence: among other traits, members describe their peers simply as “gay men with long hair, who wore Birkenstocks, and liked gardening.”5
Within this context, Ernesto is particularly interested in the “altars” made by Faeries, used as the focal point of a complex of spiritual practices, harboring a kind of personal votive power. In many cases, the altars are used as celebrations of personal and sexual freedom, employing sentimental totems along with an assemblage of spiritual iconography to create a divinity around not only sexual practices, but identity as it is vectored through sexual identity or orientation. As Oskrr, a Faerie featured in Philippe Roques’ 1992 documentary Faerie Tales, comments, “I had been taught for so long that sex was filth…[but now] I’m going the other way around. Sex is sacred; sex is divine.”6 These altars, of course, are made by hand, and as such, bear the imperfections of imprecise manual labor. However, regardless of their spiritual significance, filmic materials about the Faeries literally and figuratively cast a harsh light on these shrines, using the camera to dismiss their value. In the final cut, they appear disheveled and child-like, totems of the ill and sycophantic, while their utopian potential remains accessible to the viewer.
Altar with Honeybee (after Radical Faerie Sanctuaries, 2015), 2022, wax pastel on canvas, glue relief on board, 20 x 30 x 2 inches. Private collection, S. Korea. Image courtesy of the artist.Hence, Ernesto looks to first reclaim images of these altars, understanding them first as imperfect compositions to be considered and rectified for more just representation. In these Altar works, a powerful dualism shines through: the desire to retain their material qualities, with all of their inherent visual idiosyncrasies, while conversely they are given new structure by virtue of the respect Ernesto gives them. Ultimately, this sublimation turns that which is disorderly into something not only palatable but aesthetically beautiful, counteracting the damning gaze of the camera. In this sense, Ernesto’s images bear a striking consonance with still lives: they capture the mundane in order to elevate it, using artistry to evoke an otherwise hidden existential beauty.
Altar with Madonna and Feathers (FAERIE TALES, 1992), 2022, Washboard, screws, acrylic, wax pastel, canvas, glue relief on panel, 24.25 x 36.25 x 3 inches. Image courtesy of the artist. On view with Grove Collective at their Grove East location October 14th - November 13th, 2022
Altar with Flowers and Photos (after RADICAL FAERIES, 2010), 2022, wax pastel on canvas, glue relief on board, 12 x 18 x 2.5 inches. Private Collection, New York. Image courtesy of the artist.
Consider, for example, Altar with Flowers and Photos (After RADICAL FAERIES, 2010) (2022). Muted yellows and blues; purples and greens frame carefully placed black and white photographs. In the top right of the image, a pair of male fingers, formed in a careful pincer, look to be taking great care in adjusting one of the ornaments. Gone is the judgement of the camera, with its dismissal of an avowedly queer utopian endeavour, in its place something elegant and refined. In this light, the need to reconcile the heterosexual gaze with the notion of utopia is removed: utopia appears possible, if not palpable, in the careful gestures of the subject. This becomes further clarified in the underlying image: a young man gesticulates as if mid-speech, even sympathetically so. The tyranny of the camera, which otherwise captures the Faeries’ altars in disarray, is rebuked, and the possibility of acceptance is revealed.
***The groceries do eventually arrive, as does my time to head back to Manhattan. We’ve largely run through much of Ernesto’s new work, and we’ve begun discussing our social plans—what we’re doing, who we’re seeing. Ernesto tells me he is spending much of his weekend in the studio, for which I admonish him; everyone, artists included ought to enjoy summer.
Yet, as I leave, the urgency of Ernesto’s work feels renewed. Not simply because there are ongoing representational crises regarding both American and global queer communites (think, perhaps, to the aesthetic representation of trans athletes), but because many of our lives are now mediated by extended medial content chains in ways that we struggle to recongnize. Consider the role of social media guidelines and the role they’ve played in broader social life: a set of subjective standards that determine the content we see, and by extension, the way we see the world. This is of course done under the guise of being done “for the children,” but instead it feeds a monolithic Weltanschauung to those who know no better, unable to stake out terms of engagement with the world on their own. Hence, are the lenses through which we are encouraged to understand the world online not troublingly reminiscent of those that aid the very injustices Ernesto targets? Does the taxonimization of bodies, along with their habits and their urges, not occur in a comparable way, albeit one now refreshable with the single swipe of our thumbs? There have been innumerable advances since the filming of much of Ernesto’s reference materials, but I’d venture to guess that an insidious core remains.
Needless to say, I was glad Ernesto was spending the weekend painting.
Image Courtesy of Maria Vogel
1. Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
2. Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema / Christian Metz; Translated by Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti. Bloomington | Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1982.
3. Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
4. Foucault, Michel, and Jay Miskowiec. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 22–27.
5. Roques, Philippe, producer / director. Faerie Tales. Department of Communication, Stanford University, 1992. 21 min., 53 sec. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kGvAn8W-5w