On with their heads

"Chino Latino" by San Antonio-based Angel Rodriguez-Diaz. "The masks are a metaphor for wrestling with different issues," says the Puerto-Rican-born artist. His one-man show is on view at the Southwest School of Art & Craft through March 13.

Angel Rodriguez-Diaz demonstrates that portraiture has come in from the cold during painting's latest revolution

"For me, and for people with good eyes who actually enjoy looking at art, nothing is as uplifting as standing before a great painting whether it was painted in 1505 or last Tuesday," influential British collector Charles Saatchi told The New York Times in defense of the opening of a new exhibit, The Triumph of Painting, at his capacious gallery on the banks of the Thames. Saatchi drove much of the '90s conceptual art boom, buying and exhibiting such memorable show-stoppers as Damien Hirst's formaldehyde-preserved shark. But Saatchi, just like an irritating innovator, won't stand still and let the followers bask in his reflected consecration. Now he has sold that most-infamous Hirst for a big fat sum and turned his attention back to the canvas. Flummoxed critics and gallery owners are crying foul: Art hasn't been about being "uplifted" since Edith Wharton was writing novels and landscaping gardens.

With New York-based painter John Currin's 2003 one-man show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, it was amply apparent that the contemporary U.S. art world is flirting again with Western art's preeminent form, suggesting that the conceptual revolution heralded by Duchamp's readymades may have a legacy more akin to Napoleon Bonaparte than George Washington. But will painting's Restoration last, or will it be deposed by video and sound, which are still in their infancy in both execution and technology?

Angel Rodriguez-Diaz' one-man show Reflections in the Mirror, currently on view at the Southwest School of Art & Craft, demonstrates vividly why painting is so newly interesting in contrast to much installation and conceptual art, which seems to have exhausted itself on its self-referential nihilism - and in some cases on the lack of apparent human skill because, let's admit it, it's thrilling to see the artist's hand, and by extension, his imagination, in the work.

Rodriguez-Diaz' images draw on the long history of portraiture, infusing conventional poses, props, and imagery with irony, pointed political messages, and humor. His tapestry-like backgrounds, textured like flocked wallpaper, are mesmerizing: In the self-portrait "Looking into My Hands I See a Distant Memory," riders on horseback race across a fenced pastureland behind the artist. They might be conquerors or invaders.

   Reflections in the mirror

9am-5pm Mon-Sat, 11am-4pm Sun
Through Mar 13
Southwest School of Art & Craft
300 Augusta

Rodriguez-Diaz uses flamboyant Mexican wrestling masks to great comic and dramatic effect. The masked but shirtless painter appears threatened with an Alamo ornament wielded by a nightgown-clad arm in "Antifaz: ... forget the Alamo ... Yellow Rose." Another painting, "Blu Demon y su Espejo," (Blue Demon and His Mirror) with its protagonist's forced smile, takes one step closer to camp.

"The masks are a metaphor for wrestling with different issues," says the Puerto-Rican-born Rodriguez-Diaz, "the medium, the art world, the fad of the moment." It is these narrative and allegorical elements, as well as portraiture's specificity - its subject is not an abstraction, but a particular ("Everybody is their own world," he observes) - that contemporary art has largely rejected. "Portraiture had been relegated to non-existence," Rodriguez-Diaz observes," but for him it is particularly relevant "in that it gives people of color the opportunity to be considered worthy of being the object." San Antonio Museum of Art Director Marion Oettinger places Rodriguez-Diaz in the tradition of modern Latin American self-portraiture, which explores among other themes the relationship between subject and object.

We should note here that the paintings in Saatchi's exhibit are described as being preoccupied with social and political commentary. So, the revolution may be about a new sensibility, one of engagement and sentiment, as much as it is about a medium, but if it means we get to contemplate more shows like Reflections in the Mirror, let the naysayers eat cake.

By Elaine Wolff