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The Artist Vanishes 

All or Nothing and Labeled at First Street Gallery

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Two exhibits at Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery in Eureka bring social identity issues to the fore this month. All or Nothing, paintings and videos by San Francisco-based artist Ana Teresa Fernàndez occupy the main space. A group exhibition titled Labeled features the work of HSU art majors and alumni in the adjacent gallery.

In All or Nothing, Fernàndez draws on her experience growing up in Tijuana and San Diego to make art about politics, violence and stereotyping on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. Her images cycle through multiple media formats: The act of painting becomes performance, and photo or video stills from performances are then used to generate more paintings.

An untitled painting captures Jennifer Locke in mid-performance, drizzling her face with glue. Another painting, "Erasure," presents a close-up view of the artist from behind as she slathers black paint over her face and hair. The companion video piece, "Erasure," features a theatrically edited account of the artist's process as she applies black paint to her body. The camera lingers sensually over every gesture, zooming in and slowing down to show exactly how the glistening, loaded brush caresses Fernàndez's nape or thigh. Sibilant percussive sounds reminiscent of rattling, pattering, whispering, twisting and unwinding fill the air. It's a strange work, managing somehow to recall both the artist Bruce Nauman's canonic 1967 video "Art Make-Up" and pop singer Shakira's music video for her 2005 hit "La Tortura." It offers up one answer to what has historically been a major dilemma for the Western woman who dares to paint: How can she be a maker while wrestling with society telling her to be a muse?

The painting "Borrando la Frontera" shows the artist on the beachfront boundary between Tijuana and San Diego, painting the black bars of the border fence sky blue. The five-minute video of the same title uses time-lapse footage set to the sounds of tango guitar to document the artist's performance. Fernàndez dresses up to paint, looking eccentric but glamorous in a little black dress and high heels. She works methodically, persevering with her task as the day advances, pausing twice to engage in what appear to be animated confrontations with police and local authorities. By the video's end, blue no longer makes the fence disappear; it outlasts the day, clashing with the darkening evening sky. The border fence rematerializes in contrast. Protest against the system is essential, the artist suggests — even (or especially) when its initial outcome seems like failure.

Fernàndez has written that the acts of obliteration in her work make reference to atrocities of the U.S./Mexico drug trade, carried out by cartel members, corrupt officials and law enforcement agents on both sides of the border. For instance, she says the "Erasure" pieces honor the memory of the 43 college students who were kidnapped and murdered by local police and cartel members in Mexico's southern state of Guerrero on Sept. 26, 2014, and whose bodies have never been found. These paintings and videos take their place alongside works by an illustrious roster of artists who have used bodily absence to make statements about state-sponsored violence, including Ana Mendieta, Doris Salcedo, Joseph Beuys and Nauman.

The group show Labeled presents the multimedia work of 20 young artists whose pieces "uproot social identities." That description might sound a touch dour, but much of the art here is animated by a freewheeling exuberance that makes the show a lot of fun. These artists engage fearlessly with their subject matter, drawing from personal experience with energy, enthusiasm and a sense of go-for-broke experimentation that bodes well for future outings.

Lora Martin's elegantly spare installation of mirrors and customized bathroom scales makes an incisive commentary on body image. Bethany Montgomery's vividly rendered painting of a bus stop offers a fresh take on the contemporary mass transit experience. Humberto Montaño's sleek, futuristic cityscapes take shape through an intricate layering process featuring elements of airbrush, hard-edged stencil work and graffiti tagging. And recent HSU grad Felix Quintana returns to Humboldt from his home in Los Angeles to exhibit three dramatic time-lapse photographs, each of which superimposes dozens of neon afterimages — souvenirs of electric bodies, moving through the urban night.

There are too many engaging works to mention them all, but these examples give some idea of the show's stylistic and thematic diversity. In addition, most of these young artists' works are priced very reasonably, for now: Humboldt art lovers and collectors, take note.

Both All or Nothing and Labeled:

Uprooting Social Identities run through May 17 at Humboldt State

University's First Street Gallery.

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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