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Art review: Gabe Fernandez’ ‘Liminal Space’

The Portland painter's show at Russo Lee Gallery focuses on "the complex strangeness of quiet spaces" in the urban landscape.

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Gabe Fernandez, "Pink Wall," 2024. Photo: K.B. Dixon.
Gabe Fernandez, “Pink Wall,” 2024.

Story and Photographs by K.B. DIXON


Gabe Fernandez’ new show at Russo Lee Gallery is titled “Liminal Space.” It is, as the title suggests, a show focused on the complex strangeness of quiet spaces—in this case, on the quiet spaces of the urban landscape. A photorealist who insists on the option to improvise, Fernandez tilts his work toward the minimal. Focused on the play of light and shadow, it is a mix of inclinations, inspirations, and influences.

Portrait of artist Gabe Fernandez, 2020. Photo: K.B. Dixon.
Artist Gabe Fernandez, 2020.

His subjects range from the existential austerity of derelict gas stations and empty evening streets to the radiant mundanity of ketchup bottles and paper coffee cups. These subjects are not approached with swashbuckling gestures, but with the sort of meticulousness you would hope for in a heart surgeon. He scrapes his scenes clean of the bits and bobs that might mess with mood, leaving only the details that matter. One of the most upright of painters, he is attracted to the geometric forms rather than the biomorphic. He seems never to have met a perpendicular he didn’t like—and then, of course, there are the chairs.

Gabe Fernandez, "Lafayette," 2024. Photo: K.B. Dixon.
Gabe Fernandez, “Lafayette,” 2024.

Chairs are to Fernandez what six-toed cats were to Ernest Hemingway—an obsession. They are the central motif of his oeuvre. He has been painting them for years. With their arms and legs they serve as stand-ins (or should I say “sit-ins”) for the human form, isolated or arranged in anthropomorphized poses with others: He is fascinated by their ability to suggest stories. One of the largest paintings in the show, The Old Apartment, features a tight troupe of chrome-legged chairs crowding through a doorway—the leader and the led. One of the moodiest is Lafayette—two chairs sitting askew beneath a distant window, the whole piece washed in a monochromatic melancholy that feels almost penal.

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Fernandez’s influences are many and varied. Some are more obvious than others—like Edward Hopper and David Hockney. His painting Red Doors, a night-time view of an empty lamp-lit street, seems distantly reminiscent of Hopper’s famous Nighthawks with its muted pallet and empty angst. Pink Wall, a collection of shadows and window-lit rectangles, seems almost a template for any number of Hopper hotel rooms (Rooms By The Sea, Sun In An Empty Room). As for David Hockney, who can see a swimming pool without thinking of him? Fernandez’s Pink Slide #2 feels like a direct descendent.

Gabe Fernandez, "Red Doors," 2024. Photo: K.B. Dixon.
Gabe Fernandez, “Red Doors,” 2024.
Gabe Fernandez, "Ruscha," 2024. Photo: K.B. Dixon.
Gabe Fernandez, “Ruscha,” 2024.

Influences can be found not just in the artist’s approach, but in his titles. There is Ruscha, for instance—a dilapidated gas station with a prominent island canopy echoing painter Edward Ruscha’s famous Standard Station—and a drab bathroom stall, complete with urinal, titled Duchamp (R. Mutt), a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s infamous readymade.

“Liminal” is one of the art world’s buzziest buzzwords. It has been used so promiscuously as to be rendered meaningless, but it is not meaningless here. The space Fernandez refers to as “liminal” is a psychological space as much as it is a physical one. It is about the transitions between states of mind—between canny and uncanny, between the ordinary beauty of the everyday and the bewildering strangeness of it. His work is emphatically legible. His strong, graphic lines define one side of the perceptual puzzle, a mysterious negative space the other. The viewer travels back and forth between these boundaries—between  ennui and intrigue—to arrive at what is ultimately a bespoke response, a distinctly personal appreciation.

***

Russo Lee Gallery

  • Gabe Fernandez, “Liminal Space”
  • On View: April 4—27, 2024
  • Artist Talk: April 13, 11 a.m.
  • 805 NW 21st Ave., Portland

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Photo Joe Cantrell

K.B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. His most recent collection of stories, Artifacts: Irregular Stories (Small, Medium, and Large), was published in Summer 2022. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His SyndromesAndrew (A to Z)A Painter’s LifeThe Ingram InterviewThe Photo AlbumNovel Ideas, and Notes as well as the essay collection Too True, Essays on Photography, and the short story collection, My Desk and I. Examples of his photographic work may be found in private collections, juried exhibitions, online galleries, and at K.B. Dixon Images.

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