Rafael Ferrer, Paper Bag Faces (2008-2010), mixed-media on paper pags; courtesy Adam Baumgold Gallery
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Rafael Ferrer, whose work is the subject of an odds-and-sods, this-and-that exhibition at Adam Baumgold Gallery, is a tough nut to crack. What to make of an artist who veers from the thrift-shop conceptualism of Pizarras, a series of mini-blackboards inscribed with cryptic messages in Spanish, to choc-a-bloc paintings that send up art history even as they indulge in polemics, to the Paper Bag Faces, a group of irreverent, off-the-cuff pieces the artist has been pursuing for 40 years?
First off, you conclude that Ferrer is an ideal artist for Baumgold, a venue with a long and honorable history of exhibiting the intimate, the brainy and the eccentric. Second is that Ferrer is an artist of boundless curiosity, unstoppable energy and erratic focus. Artistically speaking, his cup runneth over even as it never fills up. Ferrer’s art glances off a variety of often provocative sources—race, war, sex, colonialism, Freud, Guy Pene du Bois and the New York Post or, rather, its typography—without settling or scoring any particular points. Capriciousness is his liability and his charm. Piquing our interest from almost nothing isn’t necessarily a joy, but neither is it, well, nothing.
Would that the paintings—fractured compendiums of images and words rendered in a smudgy palette—were as deeply felt as Ferrer’s renowned pictures of tropical locales. Would that the Pizarras were more than clever notions literally writ some 97 times over. Which leaves the Paper Bag Faces to carry the exhibition—and they do, with goofy, inventive and startlingly evocative élan. Here is where Ferrer—channeling Picasso, Saul Steinberg, African carvers, carny sideshow banners, art deco design and, if Face #9 (2008) is an indication, a spate of hallucinogens—locates an outlet appropriate to his sophisticated, droll and gently caustic vision.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally published in the March 22, 2011 edition of City Arts.