Artist, dream thyself

Painter Fernando Duarte belongs to many creative schools—and writes his own curriculum

Think he looks bored? Look again. Fernando Duarte doesn’t waste his gaze.

Think he looks bored? Look again. Fernando Duarte doesn’t waste his gaze.

Courtesy Of Fernando Duarte

Because Fernando Duarte’s paintings synthesize multiple influences, they are all self-portraits. “Every painting has to do with a moment in the past,” he observed recently, during an interview in his Midtown studio. Duarte’s past is a tapestry of disparate cultures, and he’s made a life’s work of juxtaposing them, trusting his arrangement to yield something artful. Reliably, it has.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” he said, coining an aphorism that applies to both the outer world and the inner self. Duarte makes such pronouncements with authority and impunity, but he is not above self-criticism: “I make a lot of paintings that other people like, but I don’t.” Later, borrowing freely from Pablo Picasso, he amended himself: “Art is a language. It’s a process to learn. Not ‘I don’t like it,’ but ‘I don’t get it yet. I’m not there yet.’”

This Saturday, Duarte exhibits 35 or so of his oils, etchings and woodblock prints in New Metaphysical Work: Su Realismo, opening at La Raza Galeria Posada. You can be sure the items on display were carefully chosen, and not just because they’re the ones he likes. “I never do shows just for the show,” he insisted. It’s more a matter of celebrating his arrival at a new stage of hard-won awareness.

Works in the selected group were inspired by Duarte’s travel to his native Colombia. They exemplify metaphysical painting, a sort of proto-surrealism, usually sourced to the early 20th century, in which the everyday achieves transcendence through an artist’s dreaming mind. That means, in this case, paintings whose gauzy, geometric color fields fold into each other and bloom sporadically with renderings of trains, arrows, nude female torsos or full figures, screwed-up clock faces, and fruit (pears in particular). In other words, a full supply of painterly dream imagery.

In those empty morning moments that most of us write off with snooze-button laziness, Duarte finds a poetic “Prelude to an Awakening,” both an exquisitely transitional state of mind and the title of one piece on view here. Rather than allowing himself to become trapped between realms, he prefers to move freely among them.

“Every artist deals with the logical things,” he said. “You discover that the logical side of your brain is here, and the illogical side is here.” Lest he sound a little precious, however, there was a warning too: “Illogical doesn’t mean irresponsible.”

“This is Fernando’s reality,” said La Raza’s acting executive director, Stephanie Cornejo. “I look, and I say, ‘Oh, it is a dream. Sometimes you can’t make sense of it.’” The artist might agree and enjoy the implicit challenge.

Born in Barranquilla, the Colombian port city from which Gabriel Garcia Marquez launched a literary career, Duarte grew up in Bogotá and moved to the United States in 1984. He brought nothing with him because, as he explained, “I decided to start from scratch.” Although a Californian ever since, he has retained his accent and a cosmopolitan manner.

With eyes that seem always to be sizing things up, Duarte doesn’t waste his gaze. Even when relaxed, his expression is one of penetrating concentration, as if a dream has just left him haunted or inspired or both. He recalled one trip to a museum in Boston, at which he found himself almost physically unable to stop looking at a particular painting, to the increasing concern of security guards. He has painted only some of what might be expected of him, and always what interests him.

“People ask me, ‘Are you Latin? Are you Chicano?’” he said. “I say I’m not anything. I identify with certain schools, but art is just beyond limits. … It’s not ‘I’m from Colombia, and I need to paint salsa music.’ It’s nothing to do with that.”

Lately, people may be asking, too, if he’s the guy who does the pear pictures. The answer is yes, but with the qualification that he also does apples, wedges of watermelon, eggplants, garlic and other appetizingly bulbous produce. Duarte doesn’t seem cocky enough to admit it, but in the final analysis, his fruit may go down as some of the sexiest since Paul Cézanne’s.

“I have pears sitting around, just to see how they change,” Duarte said. His observations are copiously recorded in the paintings, where the pear becomes one of several reliably familiar characters, sometimes warranted in a composition only by the pleasure its shapeliness evokes.

In his studio, Duarte works among dozens of completed canvases stacked like slices of bread all over the floor, a portable stereo usually issuing percussion-intensive music from another continent, and, on one of his easels recently, the withered carcass of a rotten pear. It’s as if, in a sort of organic mad-science experiment, the model had forfeited its life so that its essence could live on in the many canvases.

Duarte likes the aura of creative fertility in his building, an unassuming corrugated-metal complex on 25th Street that is itself a willing collision of disparate cultural identities: the Alliance Française de Sacramento, California Stage and HQ, among other enterprises. He typically arrives here early in the day, and works intensively.

“The energy here is very positive,” he said. “I see a lot of potential in the Midtown area. It feels good. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Before becoming a full-time fine artist, Duarte worked as an industrial designer, restoring old movie-theater marquees (including the Crest’s and the Guild’s) first in Northern California and eventually throughout the country. “When I look at theaters, I think it’s like the Roman Colosseum is to Italian culture as movie theaters are to American culture,” he said. “They’re going to find out in a hundred years how much damage they did to demolish them.” Naturally, he would prefer it if old theaters keep figuring prominently in the composition of our national consciousness, even— especially—if it seems surreal for them to do so.

Aaron Gilliland, Duarte’s longtime partner on these and other design projects, has called the painter “an encyclopedia of artistic knowledge.” That seems accurate, but Duarte doesn’t come off as a know-it-all. He talks shop with confidence and enthusiasm, but also with the hope of continued discovery.

“I think you need to have enough art to do 20 shows, 40 shows at a time,” Duarte said. By now, he has completed more than a thousand paintings, but that doesn’t mean he thinks they’re all ready to be shown, or that some of them ever will be. He is so prolific because he has such a diverse heritage to manifest and explore; there are, in fact, many ways to get it right.

“If you look at them, they teeter,” Gilliland said of Duarte’s recent works. “There’s things balanced on top of each other. Almost like everything could fall apart. But in the painting it still stays together.”

“I buy his work,” Gilliland added, “because I believe that one day this guy’s gonna be famous.”

For the time being, individual commissions are rare, as Duarte prefers. With a mix of humor and irritation, he recalled one client’s worry over coordinating a painting to the design scheme of a room. “I said, ‘Take your carpet and frame it.’”

“Sometimes the artists feel like they are gods, because they are close to the creation,” said Liliana Damiani, the promoter who brokered Duarte’s relationship with La Raza Galeria Posada. “But he’s not like that. You feel very comfortable to work with him.” Not that it should matter, of course, because, as she put it, “the paintings speak for themselves.”

“I can establish a communication with his paintings,” Damiani continued. “In my first approach, I started to ask him simple questions, like ‘Why a pear?’ He started explaining it to me, and I wanted to keep on asking questions.”

In his studio, while reflectively shuffling through canvases in preparation for the upcoming show, Duarte said he can feel himself changing, moving away from surrealism. His recent, more linear and figurative work bears this out.

Duarte described the complex influence of his favored forbears, who hail from different eras, different hemispheres and different creative forms. “I’m a no-good reader,” he said. “I get two pages in, and I get locked; I go right to the canvas. Two paragraphs of Borges, and it gives you enough fuel to go all day.”

But the master, Duarte figures, is another multiform, multinational painter of a dreamily transcendental bent, the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee. Duarte admires Klee’s fearlessness about casting off limits. You can see it in the insouciant complexity of the deceptively dainty, Klee-like lines and gorgeously ominous undertones that enrich Duarte’s work—and, perhaps paradoxically, make it his own.

“He was in another dimension without being a crazy artist,” Duarte said of Klee. Among artists, that’s high praise. For Duarte, it also might be an essential aspiration.