Artists come in all shapes and sizes. There are those who are overly self-promoting, the scenesters on everyone’s radar; there are those who are the secret of an art community, who only the art glitterati whisper about, self-congratulatory that they’re privy to an unrecognized genius; there are those who are well-known but humble, keeping their accomplishments and their own work close to their chest; and also there is the artist that no one knew was an artist. This last category has been the trickiest and also the most pleasantly surprising to deal with, in my experience, as the flood of their work (once it finally gets out there) comes in hot and fast. They burst onto the scene through a retrospective of sorts; instead of seeing gradual progressions and subtle changes in their creative process, viewers are completely immersed in it, and are forced to reconcile, in one fell swoop, where the artist came from, where they’re at now, and where they’re going.
In MANVAS: The Ritual of Transformation, the first-ever solo exhibition by Houston artist Mitch Pengra, we reap the benefit of a debut of decades of work. The show is only the second at landSPACE: a kunsthalle, a gallery run out of the home of recent Austin transplant by way of New York, Laura Wehrman. If you think of a house-turned–art-space you might imagine a two-walled gallery in a foyer (like the short-lived Austin space Pig & Pony) or a spare bedroom that’s been retrofitted and painted white. For landSPACE, you’d be wrong: Wehrman has turned her entire house over to the art, to the extent that the show takes over her small East Austin bungalow in a way that, one could argue, is quite intrusive.
This is what makes Pengra’s exhibition shine. Installed throughout the two-bedroom house — on the fridge, laying atop low bookshelves, above beds, on the dining table, in chairs, hanging from doors, in the bathroom, etc. — are more than 50 photos of and pieces of detritus from Pengra’s practice. The images are otherworldly. Since he was a child, Pengra has been covering his body with paint, and as he’s gotten older and come into himself, the process has turned into life as art: he coats himself in paint skin suits, each of which comes with a unique persona.
Early on in the show, in the living and dining rooms of landSPACE, the pieces are more staged. In one, a naked Pengra, painted entirely in bright blue (his hair, too), looks back at us as he splays himself out, belly down, across an orange rug. There’s a bright purple wall in the background, a metallic Christmas tree peeking out of the corner, and we see Pengra holding a remote shutter release. In another, a naked Pengra, painted a dirty purple, sits, legs akimbo, in a green lawn chair. The space is nondescript — the white floor and wall of a photo studio — and he again holds the shutter release. The photos are nods to the rich tradition of self-portraiture à la Cindy Sherman, but a few of them are also shockingly classical. Purple Pengra has a sort of contrapposto that’s both balanced and tossed aside; he’s a perfectly imperfect David, exhausted after a day’s work.
Go into the bedrooms and the bathroom and the show (somehow) gets even weirder. There’s one of Pengra’s full paint skin suits — a fiery red — hanging from a door, and another, in black, makes it look as if a person has melted into a brown leather chair. The tactility of the suits is important; Pengra has gone through many different paints, trying to find a way of working that has a confluence of the perfect durability, appearance, and texture. He’s largely settled on, according to the show’s press release, “non-toxic acrylic paint and natural latex rubber for adhesion and flexibility, a specific application and drying process and various ways to finish the coated surface with a glossy or metallic sheen.”
In his constructed photos Pengra prizes stage sets, whereas other photos in the show instead highlight how unrecognizable he can make himself. A trio of images in one bedroom show close-ups of Pengra’s face, covered in layers and globs of paint. There’s a duality of tone here that’s hard to ignore: his faces look like melted wax busts; there’s humanity, but it is frozen, lifeless, abstracted, and beautiful. On the other hand, there’s no way to see these particular images and not pick up a sexual undertone. The entire show — even the brightly colored staged photos — has roots in the fetish community, and it isn’t hard to imagine a content creator making them for their paying fans.
To trap the show in this mindset, however, is a disservice to Pengra’s life and work. Part of its success is that it is sexy — from the unabashed confidence that emanates from his wide-eyed, crazily smiling face in some photos to his coyishness in others. There’s also a contemplation in the loneliness of the works. By my count, save for a few photos, one of which shows a teal-skinned, orange-haired Pengra out in the world (clothed, this time), taking a photograph as others look at him with a mix of disgust and confusion, the works are all solitary, and as such emanate desire, longing, and self-consciousness. There are images where you can tell Pengra is probably trying to make himself laugh; in others, he’s simply appreciating the beauty of the world and his place in it.
The great impact of this show comes from its thoughtfulness. The sheer number of images included (which makes sense, as they were culled from over 10,000 photos) is overwhelming, but this is mitigated by the fact that they are all domestically sized. These photos succeed because they themselves are intimate, and they’re presented in a way that lets viewers engage with that intimacy on their own terms. A four-by-six-foot grinning Pengra might be intimidating, but a five-by-seven-inch print lets his charm come through.
Let this show be a lesson: you never know who in your midst might have a wonderfully spectacular body of artwork, just waiting to be discovered. I’m glad Wehrman was able to bring Pengra out of the shadows and that the pair have presented such a touching, weird, and wonderful exhibition within an equally thoughtful and honest space.
MANVAS: The Ritual of Transformation is on view at landSPACE: a kunsthalle in Austin through September 15, 2023.