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Joel Hernandez: “Quizas”

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


With identity politics not seeming to slow down in either the art world or the real world, the term “Identity” has taken on a great deal of importance in many artist’s minds as they explore the relationship between themselves and the world, the concepts behind the term itself, and ways to engage the audience through it. Joel Hernandez, an artist who is currently living in Fort Wayne, has a unique approach to this dialogue between the self and society.

Born in Nuevo Laredo, a city separated by Laredo, Texas by the Rio Grande River, Hernandez immigrated to the United States in 1993. A former Southside student, Hernandez was encouraged to develop artistically by his art teacher Kim Waldschmidt. This eventually led to Hernandez’ acceptance to Indiana University’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, and his graduation with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts with a concentration in photography. Hernandez’s graduating thesis show “Quizas” (ki-sas), which translates as “Perhaps,” was primarily a collection of photographs, but also semi-installations of objects throughout the exhibition, bringing the worlds depicted in the photographs out of the picture plane for the viewers to encounter. Hernandez had collected these objects for some time, while working out the creation of the set-like environments of his photos. “I decide everything down to the color of the models fingernails”, Hernandez said, commenting on the commanding attention to detail that his photographs exhibit. By manipulating every aspect of the photograph, Hernandez displays an almost painterly conceit, creating his photographs with each decision of placement, texture, or color of an object added to the final image. The photographs in “Quizas” were meant to evoke hybridized scenes from both Mexican and American soap operas. In doing this, he is exploring what it means to be either Mexican or American, as he feels somewhat displaced from both of these cultures.

However, unlike previous generations of ethnically/culturally diverse artists who base so much of their artwork on cultural experiences or ideas of alienation solely, Hernandez is far more subtle and complex in his exhibition of culturally empowered images, leaving the viewer to make many decisions for themselves, and walk away with a richer, more realistic idea and experience of another culture. While there is some consistency in the representation of Latino culture in this body of photographs, it does not come across as hackneyed or heavy-handed.

Hernandez’s creative process is also interesting, because he employs methods of performance, stage design, and literature in their creation. This incredible cast of characters is then thrown out to the viewer without the aid of a solid plot, having to stand on their own. For instance, one image entitled “Julio Estaban” was constructed through the use of a copious amount of foundation, and cut onions held up to the eyes to create an image depicting a bald man of ambiguous age who appears to be impaired by some illness, bedridden, extremely saddened, seated below a wall of photographs which become a physical representation of his memories of loved ones.

Abruptly, the image leaves you with a number of unresolved questions — why is he crying? Who are those people in the photos? Does he have Cancer? Aids? This eliciting of the viewers imagination is exactly the reaction Hernandez is looking for. There are very few feelings of concrete meaning in his work; images tend to take a somewhat dreamlike tendency of being both acute in their impact, and hazy in their ability to be fully explored. Although Hernandez himself has a very thoughtful concept behind each character preceding the photograph’s genesis, it is completely left to the viewer to puzzle out possible relationships, meanings, plot arcs, etc.

Hernandez created the images of “Quizas” with a large format view camera, and shot 4x5 negatives. The project began as a portrait series of all the men in his life, and evolved into a large body of environmental portraiture reinforced with dramatic elements and a scripted and architectural control over the image. Hernandez notes filmmaker Pedro Almodovar as an influence, and also Joel Peter Witkin. It is interesting to note that there are very few photographers with which to compare Hernandez. Although the constructed environments evoke Joel Peter Witkin, and dramatic elements can be seen in Cindy Sherman’s work, there is a conceptual and qualitative difference between their approaches and Hernandez’s. He very consciously stays far from other photographer’s work. A close comparison would probably be the writer/director/producer Wes Anderson, specifically with his movie “Royal Tannenbaums”. The fractured characters, skipping plotline, perfecting use of color, comprehensive environments, and empathic qualities match Hernandez’s dramatic “Quizas” with little exception.

Joel Hernandez’s specificity and ability to mix whole genres of artistic creation are a testament to his talent and comprehension. He questions the use of the photograph as being an art object, or purely a means to an idea, the validity of theatrical techniques in the realm of photography, and more importantly, the boundaries of identity, be it national, racial, sexual, or artistically. In this way Hernandez’s work can also be seen as a critique of the boundaries which are notoriously placed upon the arts by the art world itself, keeping traditions and whole groups of people distinct, while seeming to the world at large as being a very liberal, diverse, and open culture. As his art continues to evolve and explore these vast concepts, it is doubtless that he will find success. The idea of identity has taken on the brunt of the burdens in our modern world, and will be looked to more in the future, as America becomes a further diverse nation and must come to grips with all of the growing pains that come with it.

Joel Hernandez will be a part of Artlink’s “Fort Wayne Photographers” show that runs from December 12th –January 14th with the opening reception December 12th from 7-9pm.

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