Agustin Portillo

at Arte de Mexico, through July 8

Renee McGinnis

at ARC, through June 24

By Fred Camper

In late 1991 the now defunct World Tattoo Gallery hosted a wonderful exhibit, “Thrift Shop Art,” consisting largely of paintings selected by artist Jim Shaw for their cheap price and aesthetic quirkiness. It contained no great art in the traditional sense, but many works had a kind of showstopping strangeness. One of my favorites was a small painting of a single roll of toilet paper, rendered in a gentle lavender that suggested the artist saw the subject as possessed of an ethereal beauty.

The 23 works–mostly paintings–by Mexico City artist Agustin Portillo at Arte de Mexico have a similar assertive, somewhat defiant, almost stupefying strangeness: they are not polite. At the same time, Portillo seems conversant with the art world–his texts stenciled on the canvas recall Jasper Johns’s works, for example. But where Johns’s texts are usually paradoxical, Portillo’s often simply name what we see.

One of Portillo’s smaller paintings–one of ten in Limpieza total (“Total Cleanness”)–is of a single roll of toilet paper. And as with the thrift shop painting, one wonders, “What was he thinking?” In this case, cleanliness seems the theme: most of the other nine paintings show cleaning objects like a glove or dustpan. (The text of one, translated, is “I am so up to here with these small paintings that I can’t finish them.”) But Portillo offers even less of a clue to his feeling about the subject than the thrift shop artist did. Portillo renders everything with bright directness, painting with reasonable fidelity but not usually photorealist precision. The backdrop for his toilet paper roll is a large circle with a wood grain texture, setting off the “product” in the manner of an advertisement or illustration. As with the thrift shop piece, the viewer is asked to look carefully at, and perhaps see beauty in, an object not usually regarded with care.

The rest of the show reveals a similar mix of gentle realism and confrontation. Portillo seems interested in toilets and excretory matters generally–but this seems part of a broader interest in the underside of things. Transposición, a large painting, is almost filled by a muscular male torso painted in the grays of a black-and-white photograph. Painted over it are several body parts–stomach and intestines and spinal column–in the simple, solid colors of an anatomical diagram. Nearby are neatly stenciled Spanish words for each part. Portillo reminds us how even a beautifully sculpted body depends on ingestion and digestion and excretion. “I am questioning the beauty of the idealized body,” he writes in a statement. Similarly, the bathrooms of whatever gallery displays Limpieza total will likely be cleaned by objects similar to the ones Portillo depicts and will contain the object in Retrete (“Toilet”). This large painting labels all the important parts–lever, tank, valve, bowl–of this worthwhile object. In fact a toilet resembles the digestive system–both are assemblages of interconnected parts akin to ecological systems–and Portillo writes in his statement that he wishes to show “the W.C. as the simile of the digestive functions.”

Intertwining simple educational functions with in-your-face humor, Portillo’s work has a slightly surreal edge. Things so ordinary we would never question their reality somehow become larger than life and almost unreal. Many of the paintings look like wry, slightly askew textbook illustrations. And Portillo’s sphinxlike brushwork asserts painterliness without conveying emotion. Displaying cleaning implements, a toilet, or the digestive system in a gallery hints simultaneously at magic realism and grade-school lessons in how things work. And perhaps that’s Portillo’s point: why should it be strange to see fine art relating to elimination? Civilization itself presents a false front, the smooth skin of what we imagine as “perfect” bodies hiding the vital organs within.

Good art often presents a paradox that seems to defy articulation. And this is especially true of Portillo’s Están confundidos (“They’re Confused”). The cartoon cat Sylvester is painted at lower right, looking bug-eyed and confused, while a much more zoologically accurate depiction of a monkey appears at lower left. Above them the Road Runner announces the painting’s title in a speech balloon. The contrast between the monkey, with every skin fold carefully depicted, and the cartoon cat reminds us of how false mass media can be to the realities of nature–the juxtaposition is a bit like the organs placed over the perfect torso in Transposición. Perhaps these figures are “confused” because a real monkey and a cartoon don’t belong in the same world. But Portillo’s audacity seems to go beyond what’s needed for a lesson in ecology. And what is a roll of toilet paper doing in the middle of the painting?

Most of Chicagoan Renee McGinnis’s 13 works at ARC are paintings and like Portillo’s work, hers sometimes addresses ecological issues and stands on a divide between seriousness and humor, naivete and irony. Borrowing from a long tradition of allegorical painting, she appears to be creating eco-centric myths for our age. Mars is a very wide painting of a woman’s upper body, from chin to breasts, with arms spread. Her figure is painted in and surrounded by a deep red, and her breasts are covered by two images of the earth–a view from space on the left and a globe with national boundaries on the right. The image suggests the endlessly regenerative powers of woman, her breasts nurturing all the earth. When I asked McGinnis about this reading, she added that “we have two breasts but we don’t have two earths,” suggesting that plans for colonizing Mars would be unnecessary if we took better care of the planet we have. However, that explanation didn’t seem to account for the loudness of the red and the boldness of the whole idea.

Mirror, showing a creature that appears to be part female, part chariot, is even less clear. Combinations of humans with animals abound in classical mythology, but I know of no tradition that combines the front of a human with the rear of an object. The chariot here–the woman’s hindquarters–seems to erupt in bright plumage, at the middle of which sits a giant tan globe of the earth. The chariot’s wheels are wedding rings apparently stuck in the ground, yet the woman points into the far distant background where a pathway of light reflected from a green landscape seems to lead to a pinkish, misty sky. Once again McGinnis’s bright colors and dramatic symbolism suggest an excess of meaning. At the same time this seems an instance of overheated kitsch–which McGinnis pushes far enough to make interesting.

In her statement, McGinnis says that her work “communicates humanity’s concerns on a metaphysical level,” suggesting she’s quite serious. She told me that she intended Mirror to discourage young women from having babies just because it’s expected of them, and thus reduce overpopulation–hence the wheels-cum-wedding rings stuck in the mire. McGinnis has redrawn the coastline of another globe in Mirror, suspended in the sky above the chariot, to show the effect of an ocean rise due to global warming. But at some point it becomes difficult to take McGinnis’s stated intentions seriously. ARC, an alternative gallery in an out-of-the-way industrial building, seems unlikely to attract the kind of impressionable young woman who will look at Mirror and decide not to have kids. And if the viewer does get that far in her interpretation, what is she to make of the carrot suspended from a drooping horn in the chariot-woman’s cap?

Another antiprocreation piece, the large wall installation International Lemons Aid, strongly suggests that McGinnis’s tongue is at least sometimes in her cheek. Here she’s assembled dried lemons (which look like miniature breasts), condoms, diaphragms, and pearls into the abstracted shapes of continents on a world map. Grown-Ups shows she’s aware of identity politics, sacrosanct to some–and that she’s willing to toy with them, repainting children in a found photograph to resemble various ethnic “types”: Cleopatra, Tonto, the Dalai Lama, among others.

And I can’t help liking the diptych Dying for Shoes, though less for its attack on brand names than for its visual simplicity and conceptual directness. A man in black and white ties his work boots, a few snowflakes flying around him, while a more contemporary-looking woman rendered in color ties her running shoes with little (R) signs floating around her. In both cases, the act of tying one’s shoes seems to stand for a kind of self-reliance: these figures appear to have more personal autonomy than those ensnared in McGinnis’s complex allegories. Perhaps the real message of this refreshing nonmythic painting is the integrity and beauty of ordinary tasks.