Arthur Peña and Francisco Moreno have been friends and known each other’s artwork for five years. They both approach painting with a focus on production and labor. With full-time artistic practices, they both work for hours on end each day in their studio. And although they look nothing alike, the two Mexican-American artists are often mistaken for one another in the art world. In many ways, the two artists are different. Moreno makes work serially, creating limitations for himself to work in, while Peña views painting more loosely. And though the artists will exhibit concurrently at the Latino Cultural Center come November, they have two separate solo exhibitions opening this weekend that offer insight into the distinctions in their respective practices. At The Public Trust in an exhibition called Soliloquy, Peña will exhibit just one painting; at Erin Cluley Gallery, Moreno will exhibit 70 works.
Since 2012, Peña has called his paintings, “attempts.” With no notions of success or failure, this approach allows him to avoid being too concerned with right or wrong. Each painting is an attempt caught in action. By focusing on the production of art with attempts, he was able to free himself from agonizing over important questions he had to ask himself about art. “I needed to free myself from objective restraints—things I couldn’t control, like history,” says Pena. “And I needed a subjective restraint, something that made me feel like I’m in control.”
So he started stumbling his way through these attempts, using unusual processes, colors, and materials. Now it seems clear that this body of the work follows the narrative of his life while exploring what exactly defines a painting. The works he exhibited at a Dallas Contemporary exhibit in 2014 were made out of drywall—which he had been using for paintings—and razors, which were all over the studio. He didn’t use paint until “Attempt 97.” From there, he went from using rough materials like bed sheets he slept in, VHS tape from movies he watched, and burnt wood to using paint.
But sometimes Peña has different ideas about what can be used as paint. Choosing colors was off-limits. Sometimes the paint is poured inside the painting. A studio rag was used for texture. He has used large quantities of toxic printer dust for paint. Throughout his work, the image of a human has only showed up in one painting, and it was just a head. He also started painting with a staple gun, which reminded him of the scars a loved one has from surgery. “The staples became a key component to indicate pain,” Peña says.
When a family member was dying, Peña made an approximate scale of her hospital bed and put over 7,000 staples in it. The painting, “Attempt 59,” is an incredibly moving, somber piece that represents suffering. Here’s the thing: Painting isn’t meditative or joyous for Peña. When’s he working in the studio, his mind is typically concerned with his greatest fears. With “Attempt 59,” Peña started to consider how painting can be communicative or transfer energy.
The materials left over from one attempt are typically used for the next and eventually he had a drywall pallet. The refined gradients of the palette caught his attention and he started doing paintings that mimicked that look. The sole painting for this show is “Attempt 139” and it is a large exploration of this idea. Peña admits that it has been a grueling process, wrestling with personal demons while creating some of his most direct work with a labor-intensive process. He has been working long days for weeks and will have the painting completed just in time for the show.
The painting is beautiful, almost like a box full of colorful candy. But it has manic undertones. Peña found himself wondering if he could make it through the process. He thought about it as burying these images. “Attempt 139” radiates a great deal of energy. To the viewer, shapes in this thick field of paint occasionally seem to come together, but these connections quickly shatter just as they come into focus. “I don’t know how much more direct I can be with what I think my paintings can talk about,” Peña says. “Attempt 139” is about the ephemeral nature of existence.
Francisco Moreno’s “Slates” is somewhat of a large-scale version of his three-year project, “Painting Debt,” a series of small paintings made to help payoff student loans. Within that series he sometimes makes groups of works that share certain themes. He wanted to keep that conceptual framework for this exhibit, which has 14 bodies of work, with 5 works in each body.
With the exception of the patents of the idea that begin the show, the bodies are spread out across the walls. Instead of an introduction to the show with text, Moreno was taken with the idea of a visual explanation of the show. This group is a part of the show, but it also explains it. This is a great interactive exhibit as you start putting the pieces together and scanning the walls.
Moreno is endlessly creative and random when it comes to putting groups together. But these are all topics that mean something to him. One is made out of the metal remnants of his dog crate, zip ties and wire hangers. Moreno’s art seemed to gobble up dead objects in living space. One group focuses on daily news stories he read.
There are the unicorn paintings that recall the unicorn painting he made for a friend; well, he actually traded it for a clay lizard he asked her to make. There are PVC pipe paintings, dip paintings, wooden paintings, and paintings of Kanye West. There is a series made from materials used on other projects.
Using many different materials, Moreno also seems to wrestle with what is and is not considered a painting. But with no limitations, Moreno just has fun, often creating what could be described as three-dimensional drawings. The only format here is the painting’s size: four- by three-foot. Moreno’s idea for this show is deceptively simple, but masterfully executed.
Francisco Moreno: Slates runs from September 19 thru October 17 at Erin Cluley Gallery, 414 Fabrication St. Arthur Pena: Soliloquy opens September 19 at The Public Trust, 2271 Monitor St.