The family circus 

Two shows at Cornell posit new theories of relativity

Kim Russo: Family

through Jan. 15, 2012

The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd

Fontenot
through Jan. 8, 2012
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
1000 Holt Ave.,
Winter Park
407-646-2526
rollins.edu/cfam
$5

We’re sliding into the season of togetherness. Inevitably, inexorably, the calendar is pushing us toward that four-week span labeled “Family Time” – that time of year when all but the most committed misanthropes seek out (or grudgingly submit to) the company of relatives.

But not every family conforms to the Norman Rockwell aesthetic. In fact, most don’t, these days. We’ve all learned to navigate holiday gatherings complicated by various forms of family dysfunction, from divorce to distance to being disowned; many of us learn to create our own families – whether based on bonds of friendship stronger than blood or commitment to romantic partners that the state won’t officially call “marriage.”

Kim Russo’s watercolors depicting three Florida families with lesbian parents – as clear an example of self-made family as you’ll find – serenely dominate the small side gallery into which they’re tucked. Some of the paintings are 6 feet high and 10 feet long – essentially, life-sized, which magnifies their homey effect. Not only do all the environments Russo portrays ring utterly familiar, you feel you could step right into them.

Russo, head of the fine arts department at Sarasota’s Ringling College of Art and Design, captures a suburban normality into which faintly ominous touches intrude – a cop car glimpsed through a TV-room window, a shark floating in a swimming pool. But it’s the prosaic markers of American home life that set the tone: the dishwashers, birthday cakes and dogs floating in Russo’s lightly limned spaces. Clean-edged and airy, these paintings lack the fleshy heft of some of Fontenot’s portraits, but have a buoyant emotional weight of their own.

Austin, Texas-based painter and filmmaker Heyd Fontenot often discusses his work in terms of sexuality, and certainly that’s apparent – the show comprises nearly all nude portraits. But the very casual, playful nature of the nudity, the almost-cartoony compositions and adorably distorted proportions of his subjects (big heads, big eyes, tiny pudgy bodies), remove them from the realm of the purely erotic. There’s a tenderness and childish humor in these renderings of his friends – the kind of tenderness you feel for the people you choose to be part of your life.

The essay accompanying the exhibition states that Fontenot’s compositional choices “betray an openness to different ways of … being in the world,” and that his focus on portraiture “discloses the importance he places on relationships and community building.” The museum has hung curtains to obstruct every entrance (due to the “adult nature” of the work – i.e., male, not just female, nudity). That closed-off atmosphere, along with the dark wallpaper stripes painted on the back wall and striped velvet-topped benches installed in the gallery, reinforce the in-crowd feeling of Fontenot’s show – not the typically sterile art gallery ambience, but rather the kind of festive coziness you might encounter at a holiday gathering.

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