“I hate the uninitiated crowd and keep them away. Observe silence! I, the Muses’ priest, sing for girls and boys songs never heard.” (Horace, ODES, III: 1)
By interpreting songs never heard—whether in the privacy of his studio or in the open air of the gallery—Alex Donis’s art has consistently blared out at the cult of the image. His fusing of popular and classical histories, his continual pairing of pop stars and politicos, religious leaders and camp idols, has always pleasantly negotiated both the sublime and the shocking. Over the past several years, Donis has sustained his art career as a gallery interpreter and art instructor, his art work absorbing the roaming energy of these interconnected vocations. His current series of drawings, Heroína (2003) operates on a similar register to the museum talk, mixing juicy anecdote with art historical detail.
The impetus for Heroína stemmed from Donis’s recognition of the many influential women he has come into contact with over his years as an artist/arts educator. The museum world is certainly a feminized work environment with a diversity of class representation—from the wealthy set who devote their lives to philanthropy and art history to the middle class who get by on tight budgets in order to follow a career path in the arts. Donis pays tribute to the many personae of women in the arts, from the hungry, angry, nude performance artist to the comfortably chic museum worker of independent means. As with his past couplings of the sacred and profane, beautiful and banal, Heroína finds Donis match-making a cast of characters from his everyday life with the great mythic and historical figures of art history—from Jesus to Napoleon, from the Graces to the disciples.
Heroína started with an initial mental list of famous moments in art history—a veritable pageant of the masters. Donis tests his juxtapositions on tracing paper, aligning the faces and bodies of his models into sketches of the paintings and sculptures in mind. He thus auditions his models by inserting them into the highly charged space of the selected image archive. When the characters are cast, Donis stages a sitting with the actor and directs the pose for a camera.
At times the poses are handed down from the artist, while in other situations, the postures are formulated after lengthy historical and emotional discussions with the models. Under Donis’s direction, Bernini’s marble orgasm, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52), is transformed into a saucy and messy Spring Break moment. Working closely with his good friend, digital artist Alma Lopez, Donis translates the core of her satirical and political self into Massacio’s The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1427). Lopez’s apostatic journey is not one beset with grief and shame, but rather with defiant fits of laughter, as if to say, “I’m outta here!”
The title of Donis’s series, Heroína, meaning both heroic female protagonist and addictive powder, is a wry commentary on the relationship between artist and muse. His drawings follow a whole line of feminist critiques of the feminine muse as inspirer of great male art acts. He deals with that obscure object of desire in art history, the female body, but by combining the most extreme theatrical moment of feminine depiction with gestures of defiance, discord, and triteness, he makes bare the true friction that drives the artist/model alliance.
Donis’s practice cannot help but be infected by the proximity to the grand gestures of historical painting, neo-classical statuary, as well as Baroque and Renaissance painting. Curiously, his first exposure to a number of these intoxicating paintings came through religion instruction in Catholic school. More recently, he has been able to travel to seek out some of these paintings, turning European tours into art pilgrimages. It is in the repeated viewings and reflections on the paintings and sculptures selected for this series that Donis has been able to analyze their composition. He is drawn to the site/sight of action, noting that in comparing the composition to phrasing that the central gesture serves as verb. But beyond the artist making a study of these works, there emerges a bit of the caricaturist’s or animator’s irrepressible urge to insert his or her life into the cel—to animate the inanimate or to rudely disturb the reified image.
Donis’s removal of background detail, the sense of depth and atmosphere, isolates the frozen gestures of the poseur. For the most part, the subjects in the original paintings are overwhelmed by grandiose architectural spaces (e.g. Velasquez’s infanta Doña Margarita), violent historical or mythic events, or part of a larger collective (as in Raphael’s cast of great thinkers, The School of Athens). First of all, Donis has hit upon a signature, corporeal detail in each painting and held his fascination at that corridor. Second, Donis has re-cast intimate (and some not-so-intimate) relationships into these physical details, not only in an attempt to bring a carnal knowledge back to the painting—but to inject his own personal life into the history of art. Within the image inventory are images of dread (Coco Fusco sprawled in a simulation of Delacroix’s terribilitas); passion (the artist’s mother giggling in a Fragonard); brutality (Elia Arce kneeling defiantly in Goya’s The Shootings of May 3, 1808); seduction and loss (Christina Fernandez dancing with herself in Titian’s Venus and Adonis).
If Vasari had his Lives of an Artist, Alex Donis may very well be crafting his own opus. Reigning in the ecstatic visions of some of his painterly predecessors, Donis has selected props that bring his “muses” back into the world of the everyday.