Heyd Fontenot’s latest series of drawings and oils on panel have been on display this spring at North Cottage, a private residence in downtown Austin.
Fontenot has returned to the moderately-sized bucolic portraits he is known for after dabbling with abstraction, and these new works display the artist’s enjoyment of figurative draftsmanship and sense of play. Although the figures are carefully drawn to create the illusion of three dimensions, the scale is manipulated in service of content. Heads, for example, are proportionately larger than in life. Individual features of the figures portrayed are also exaggerated, emphasizing their unique personhood and distinctly referencing the venerable tradition of caricature. The illusion of depth in the human and demi-human figures and animals contrasts with the flatness of the cardboard-brown backgrounds, and a restrained palette is present throughout. The central compositions are quite deliberately unsophisticated. Fontenot’s world contains many butterflies and some sea monkeys among its denizens, and into this playful world he cheerfully integrates a certain relaxed retro-pop aesthetic.
Nature, and deer more specifically are a significant feature of this series. Apart from their ubiquitous presence in Central Texas, deer have long been presented in art, dating from the shamanistic images of prehistoric times. Fontenant’s exploration of animals and landscape riffs on irony-tinged mythology. In Liz Strolling in a Wood, for example, tiny satyrs (a series of figures based on the same model, differing only in their positioning, complete with tails) accompany a larger female figure, a sardonic twist on the classic putti of the Baroque.
There is no taste of the Old Testament in this coquettish Garden of Eden, save a humorous homage to Dave Bryant (the organizer of Austin’s Fresh Up Club) as an artistic prophet in the wilderness in Dave with Staff and Woodland Backdrop. A large part of the content of the work rests in the personal friendships the artist has with his models; one has the sense that there are more than a few inside jokes. That said, it generally does not require lots of explanation for the uninitiated.
The eyes of all the figures — nude, one and all — meet the viewer’s gaze in an intimate and cheerfully confident manner, without any perceptible sense of shame. Sexuality plays an important role in these works, but frank depiction of sexuality is present in only one artwork, Alex and Shawn Sitting on Log with Bucks, in which a pair of bucks — as in deer — are copulating. The title of another work, Lucky Log, a depiction of two male figures sitting astride a log, implies a similar connotation.
Despite the fact that Fontenot’s paintings and drawings use the visual vocabulary of caricature, an art form that is normally politically charged, these works do not seem to have any particular ax to grind, at least not overtly. Although it is tempting to assign deep symbolism to all the imagery, these pastoral frolics are too playful to demand much analysis, content-wise. If there is any agenda, it is that the artist is in favor of fun, and challenges the viewer to drop the puritanism, already, and join in. Though sufficiently quirky to satisfy the artistic craving for novelty, these humorous artworks are notably, and refreshingly, absent any sense of pretense or difficulty. It”ll be fun to see what Fontenot comes up with next.
Images courtesy the artist.
Jacqueline May lives in Austin.