As has been evident in a string of successful exhibitions in Europe and the U.S., José Lerma—who splits his time between New York and Chicago, where he teaches at the School of the Art Institute—likes to work on a big scale, arranging his nontraditional paintings and objects in room-size installations with a conceptualist, site-specific thrust. For this exhibition, Kristin Korolowicz, a curator at the MCA Chicago, has tried to highlight the multiple directions in Lerma’s work, but here she was perhaps overambitious. The artist, who clearly needs a generous area to display his work effectively, had just two small galleries and some subsidiary spaces at his disposal, and the show looks a little constricted as a result.
Wittily facing each other from small mezzanines on opposite sides of the museum’s lobby, Marjorie Looks at Marianne and Marianne Looks at Marjorie (both 2013) animate what are usually lounge areas. Representing the two donors for whom the spaces were named, the 8-foot-tall, three-dimensional heads are made of the heavy colored paper used for backdrops in photo studios, loosely folded and shaped. They have a lighthearted, caricatural look, but they lack the playful dynamism of some of Lerma’s earlier pieces in this vein, such as a group of oversize busts of historical figures (he calls them puppets) that he made in 2012 in collaboration with Héctor Madera, another Spanish-born artist who lives in the U.S.
Like much of Lerma’s work, the busts of Marjorie Susman and Marianne Deson Herstein address the function of portraiture, past and present, and explore issues of power and display by examining the interrelationships among artists, institutions, viewers and patrons. He continues these investigations in a room containing three paintings, including Portrait of Norman and John (2013), depicting the founders of two banks that merged in the 1980s as BMO Harris Bank—one of the largest banks in the Midwest, and the sponsor of a series of exhibitions of which this show is a part. Lerma pairs the men’s vaguely cubist faces in acrylic paint on a 27-by-24-foot rug that spills across the gallery floor onto an adjacent walkway. This is one of Lerma’s well-honed gambits: creating oversize drawings and paintings that he places flat on the floor, Carl Andre-style. But this solitary work does not exert the same visual impact as the vibrant collision of images in his more expansive patchwork displays.
Dominating the rest of the gallery is Parterre (2013), an 18-by-10-foot canvas resting on two electric keyboards; the pressure creates an unending drone. Korolowicz states in an essay accompanying the show that this arrangement is intended as a metaphor for the weight of painting’s history on contemporary art. Lerma often uses, as here, a fine-point airbrush technique, with an effect almost like ballpoint pen. Taken from The Exhibition at the Salon du Louvre, an 18th-century engraving by the Italian artist Pietro Antonio Martini, the painting’s cartoony, loosely drawn faces are packed together in patternlike rows, forming a strikingly realized composition.
A second gallery is ringed on three sides by a curtain made of a shimmery silver fabric that reflects and distorts colored light cast onto it from two suspended projectors. Nearby are another leaning keyboard painting and two smaller wall pieces. Lerma conceived this room display, titled “Midissage,” as both a kind of surround painting and an installation, but I found its conceptual aims perplexing. While Lerma clearly has much to say, he is not seen at his best in his first MCA Chicago show.