Q&A: Heyd Fontenot
Aleks with Seven Others, 2009
Featured in edition #66 and on the cover of edition #84 of New American Paintings, Heyd Fontenot isn't afraid to bare it all, at least not when it comes to his work. The Austin, TX-based artist creates intimate renderings of nude friends and models that are as weirdly natural as they are delicately altered. Whether painting nude portraits on naked wood or drafting subtle works on paper, Fontenot's work is undoubtably captivating. We caught up with the Texas artist this week to talk about his work (and getting naked). —Evan J. Garza
EJG: So, why the nude?
Well, Evan, I think I've always been sort of fascinated by the nude. Ever since I was a child, I was supremely interested in erotically-charged material. And having said that, I should clarify that I don't necessarily classify the work that I'm doing as "erotic." I realize that there is a "sexy" element in the work, but I think that has more to do with a degree of intimacy. And the playfulness in the work is also important, in that it perhaps signifies that the nudity isn't a threat. I think I originally conceived this body of work as an attempt to present a loaded, and perhaps confrontational subject in a straight-forth, unflinching, kind and gentle manner.
Jessica, Alexandre, Bill, 2010
EJG: Much of your work is painted on wood. Tell me about what you enjoy about using wood. (Not a euphemism, I swear.)
See, I think it's totally okay to use a dirty joke here and there. Because I feel that the "nude" is sometimes "neutered" in order to be acceptable. And in that case, we are denying our true responses to the visual stimuli. Yes, I'm looking at a nude and it did occur to me that this could be sexual. And no, that doesn't have to be my only response (even though it was my first response). I can find other valuable and worthwhile content. I love a double entendre and I encourage naughtiness. Please feel free to make the off-handed comment, as long as it's followed up by something thoughtful.
Regarding wood as painting surface, there may be something nostalgic about my use of raw wood as a surface for painting, but there's also the metaphor for nudity. And I think there may be a secondary metaphor - letting the painting surface be what it actually is, rather than a platform to build illusion, which is traditionally the alchemy practiced by painters.
Yet, Kevin, William, Monique, 2010
EJG: More often than not, you paint your friends and loved ones. Is there something about the familiar that gives the subjects more weight?
When I'm working with someone dear to me, there is an intention that gathers in the work. I actually end up "meditating" on the specific model throughout my technical process. It occurred to me that if there is such a thing as a holy or blessed object, these works certainly qualify. When I'm focusing this amount of mental and psychic energy on manifesting an image, it's as though I've been praying over the eventual work.
EJG: You recently photographed nude volunteer models at Inman Gallery in Houston while your work was featured there in a summer show. Do you usually work from photographs? Tell me about your penchant for using models.
Yes, generally. ALWAYS photographs. I like to have photographic reference materials, and I like to create those photographic files myself. This project really would not be possible if I needed to have the model present while I made the work. I was able to photograph 32 models over two long weekends. For the scope of this project, I would have had to move to Houston for six months or longer if I needed to "work from life".
…There are a few reasons that I've manufactured my own methods for working with a model, two of which I'll give you: 1) economy. I'm not using professional models, just people in my social circles. I'm not expecting them to commit to five hours of sitting for a drawing or twelve hours for a painting. Also, if I'm working from files, I don't have to schedule a model for a particular day; I can work when the mood hits me, without arranging to have a model present. 2) Head-space. I have to work in privacy to sustain the concentration that makes this work. With a model present, my focus would be compromised.
Two Hana's and One Dana, 2010
EJG: Often your subjects are amalgamated into nests of nudes or seen gathered together in groups. How much freedom do you grant yourself when creating your portrait compositions?
I allow myself a lot of freedom. Most often, the models aren't posing together. The pastiche is created while reviewing the resource materials/images I've stocked up. Most times, the models in a particular work do not live in the same city and have never met. I'll assemble them based on aesthetic interests or fabricated dramatic impact. In this way, I end up using the models as actors in an implied narrative.
Zack with Two Joes, 2010
EJG: The subjects in your works are depicted as only slightly queerer than normal, with enlarged heads and facial features. But otherwise, especially in their figure, they're highly average. Tell me about how you approach the figure in your work.
I discovered that to sustain my personal interest in working with the figure, I had to allow myself the creative freedom to distort and interpret the human form. In this distortion, I find an emotional impact that doesn't exist in "academic" treatments of the figure. I also like the idea of mixing "High Art" and "low art", thus, my visual references to caricature and illustration in the service of contemporary art making.
EJG: You're currently featured in a solo exhibition of your work, The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot, at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland. Tell me about the show.
This exhibit was curated by Jonathan Walz, and he describes the show as a mid-career survey. It's all figurative work, which has been my primary focus for the last 10 years. And they're also exhibiting a collection of my film work. In the late 80's and up to the mid-90's, I was focused on making experimental films in my studio practice.
Installation view, The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot, The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland.
EJG: Michael O'Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote that your Maryland exhibition 'is not an erotic art show.' Do you agree with that?
Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. O'Sullivan. As I said, I think there is an element of the erotic when you're considering the nude, but this work isn't "erotica." I think for the work to be so narrowly defined would mean that it's less complex than it actually is, and truly limit a contemporary interpretation of my work. In the same way that I wouldn't like the work to fall into the "erotica" category, I wouldn't necessarily want the work to be identified as "gay art", because I feel that it's simplistic and limiting. Now that is not to say that there is not such a thing as "erotica" or "gay art", and that work certainly has an audience, but I feel that I'm trying to make work that is engaging on different levels.
EJG: Last, but not least, I would sit for you any day. How soon can we get started?
Whenever you're in Austin or I'm in Boston, we will do this!
Heyd Fontenot was featured in editions #66 and #84 of New American Paintings. He is currently featured in a solo show of his work at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland through December 4th. He will be featured in his second solo exhibition for Inman Gallery, It's a Nude, Nude, Nude, Nude World, in Houston in early 2011, and is preparing for another solo show at Conduit Gallery in Dallas also next year.