Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Shared Languages: Daniel Ochoa at Julie Nester Gallery

Self Retrato with Bandana by Daniel Ochoa, oil on panel, 36 x 36

Daniel Ochoa is an Anglo-Spanish artist from the San Francisco Bay Area who lives on the border of two cultures, between which he moves adroitly—if not necessarily comfortably—and who extends this experience in paintings that are visually bilingual: alternatively abstract and representational, realistic and diagrammatic, impressionistic and expressionistic, detached and engaged, they move back and forth as casually as truly bilingual speakers switch between shared languages, using whatever verbal gesture or linguistic brushstroke best expresses the moment’s feeling or thought.

Ochoa’s seventeen canvases at the Julie Nester Gallery in Park City (sixteen officially on the walls and one little jewel at the desk . . . ) are all concerned with human form and have in common the same sequence of techniques, but they divide into two groups along thematic lines that result in subtle but definite stylistic differences. The majority—a baker’s dozen—are full-length figures. These bodies are fragmented in active ways, as though they were in motion and captured in successive fragments. One thinks of slow shutter photography, where the beginning and final positions of a moving body are connected by blurs. But there are no blurs here: rather, limbs and torsos jump, or—to use the popular, cinematic term—they morph from one posture to the next. Also, this is painting, not photography, and Ochoa uses his advantage to highlight certain body parts, which he names in Spanish and English in his descriptive titles. The two words in “Cara and Face” mean the same thing in theory, but the rich connotations that accompany them, slightly different from one patois to the other, underscore that there is more than one visual reading of the named part as well. Familiarity with Spanish anatomical terms is useful when the titles are ambiguous: mano denotes hand, dedos fingers; oreja means ear; pecho is chest. Sometimes “and” joins disparate parts, but at others only the language is changed: “Pierna and Legs” or “Rodillas and Knees.” Ochoa’s anatomy is also representationally multi-lingual, with parts designated by silhouettes here, by something akin to Cubist geometry there, and then by uncannily solid modeling of knees, fingers, or other parts that emerge suddenly and three-dimensionally among rippling fields of brush strokes.

Mateo by Daniel Ochoa, oil on canvas, 60 x 48

In contrast to these energetic, atomic fragments, with their implied time, motion, and orbital unity, the three portraits appear relatively solid, almost sculptural, composed of parts that appear to have been found separately and bound forcibly together. If the bodies suggest quantum mechanics—the scientific theory that particles exist in one place after another by chance, but may not exist while moving between here and there—the free-standing heads argue that a face is built up of unrelated, often contradictory features (what does a nose have to do with an eye, or a mouth with a chin?) from which somehow emerges a physiognomy: a coherent statement from which can be read not only an emotion or a thought passing like a cloud shadow on the landscape, but an entire character. In “Auto Retrato (self-portrait) with Bandana,” the on-again, off-again passage of the rolled bandana over the eyes suggests how this badge of class or ethnic identity either blinds the wearer or gives him a clear vision. Or is it the viewer looking at Daniel who experiences this paradox? The larger portrait of “Mateo” hanging nearby seems to change not its expression, but its mood as the eye explores its fissured and melting topography. Perusing this face, which is masked by the same paint that makes it visible, is like watching the smiling face of a friend relax until what remains breaks the viewer’s heart. What is it about the human condition that makes ‘thoughtful’ so close to ‘sad?’

Despite his youth, Daniel Ochoa has apparently done his homework. More importantly, he isn’t afraid to show off his influences. Scanning across these extensive, energetic canvases, the eye recalls many of the best painters of the last century. The frenetic movement of arms and legs recalls the early Duchamp of “Nude Descending a Staircase.” The sudden emergence and immediate subsidence of seemingly solid flesh stretched over unmistakeable bones—knees, fingers, noses popping out of a tornado of flat brush marks—pays tribute to the phantasmagoric paint, if not to the grotesque pain and existential despair, of Francis Bacon. The face of “Ojos, Eyes” is painted, not silk screened, but captures Andy Warhol’s contrast of photographic detail and flat space. At no point does any of these, or countless other subtle nods, coalesce into a dominant impression; despite their trip through the rich history of modern paint application, these paintings remain Ochoa’s statement about the human biological engine, the source as well as the subject of reflection.

The figures in “Seated in el Noche” and “Pierna and Legs” emerge out of inky black backgrounds, brightly lit by raking light. All the others appear before pale grounds of various grays. A few of these backgrounds subliminally suggest a floor meeting a wall. Others are almost imperceptibly variegated to create space around otherwise isolated figures. Julie Nester Gallery, one of the more splendid local spaces for presenting art, has lit these so as to reinforce their illusory space, while the gallery’s very real and uncluttered space allows Ochoas’ images room to breathe. Like Singer Sargent’s, they change with the viewing distance. Up close, they are paint on canvas. Further away they are bodies, however fragmented by movement, distance, and strong light. In between, instead of changing abruptly they move through layers of ambiguity, their technique wavering between revealing and concealing itself. Their empty environments are an aesthetic choice, not to diminish or abandon the individuals, but to suggest that alone they are sufficient.

It would be overreaching to assert that all Ochoa is doing here is trying to get across a socio-political message: to communicate, for instance, that each of us should be seen for ourself, without regard to circumstances and without prejudgment. At that point we do well to remember the Hollywood mogul’s advice: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” But it would also be an excess of Theoretical zeal to assert, as American artists and critics have for so long, that formal qualities are the totality of art. Form is what the artist brings to his (or her) subject matter, but Louis Sullivan missed a most important fact when he said form follows function. The artist does not determine art’s function. Society does, and as the age of art that celebrates the corporation and its financial beneficiaries implodes from its own corruption, art may once again permit us to share the vision of those who see more clearly and speak more universally. It’s not that Daniel Ochoa wants to fit his human subjects into a predetermined mold. Rather, he explores the qualities of the individual face, the particular limb, the precise motion, in confidence that his explorations will yield specific facts that will tell us things that are true of all humanity. Stand before the life-sized figure of “Cara y Manos Moving” and feel the tension in your own knees as he crouches. Follow the intensity of his sidelong gaze and remember the last time you looked at something so intensely that you forgot who was doing the looking. Feel the pleasure of looking at these beautiful, scintillating bodies, and remember what Oscar Wilde said: pleasure is nature’s sign of approval.

Pierna and Leg Ojos, Eyes by Daniel Ochoa, oil on canvas, 72 x 48

The Cuarto, new paintings by Daniel Ochoa, is at Park City’s Julie Nester Gallery through January 26.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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