A Conversation With Chicago Artist José Lerma

Artist José Lerma is best known for painting, but a brief exchange with him reveals a scope of concerns that far exceed not only the realm of painting but the world at large, too. At once gregarious and cerebral, Lerma can jump from Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory to the expressive possibilities of social media. Revealing the synergy that can result when the proverbial right and left brain hemispheres befriend one another, Lerma has built a roster of solo and group exhibitions around the globe.

Born in 1971 in Seville, Spain, Lerma grew up in Puerto Rico and is now associate professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During a chat in the coffee shop of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, we talked history, the rise of neoliberalism and the limits of identity as a means of interpreting art.

Can you say something about the concept behind your recent large-scale installation, called “Militant Nostalgia,” in Toronto? The title reminds me of the “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The curator of that series was Spanish artist Paco Barragán—“Militant Nostalgia” was his concept for the selection of art. My piece was somewhat emblematic in terms of its context. I photographed Toronto landmarks and paintings in museums that were representative of certain ethnic groups and historical figures from the past. Essentially, I condensed history to include only certain people. But then I erased the figures from these paintings and statues and left the pedestals in the background. Pedestrians could pose and take the place of these figures.

Jose Lerma Artist ALIVE Magazine

There’s a kind of timelessness caught in the images, then?
Yes, it’s essentially an Instagram project, intended to be disseminated as photographs with flash. Viewers are interacting with all these things without knowing precisely what they are. They take the place of politicians from the right and the left, military figures, native Canadians—people from all sorts of society are in the wrong places. [laughs]

The terms “irreverence” and “playfulness” seem to be used interchangeably to describe your work, but I don’t think they mean the same thing. The former seems more accurate, but I’m interested in your take on it.
You’re touching on a sore point, but it’s fortunate that you bring it up. The word “playfulness” is often used to describe my work, but that’s not all it is. My subject matter tends to be either politicians or economists—pretty dry. The point of access is a childlike environment, with the colors and so on. For “Militant Nostalgia,” the project was seen as fun to a lot of people, but they don’t know that they’re participants in something historical. If I’m making something dry, I want the delivery system to be the opposite. And there’s something perverse about little children running around an installation about banking.

You dropped out of law school to pursue an art career. Did your time in that analytical environment affect your creative process?
Law school gave me a sense of precision; a different work ethic. I’m also not as loose or ambitious with language as some of my artist colleagues in terms of describing my work. Sometimes I listen to artists describe their own work, and I think, “Did that guy just say that?” [laughs] I try to be more honest about what is actually there. I come from a generation really steeped in French theory. A lot of artists hear that stuff and maybe understand about 20 percent of it but use its language nonetheless.

Jose Lerma Artist ALIVE Magazine

What are you excited about now, in terms of your own work?
I have a show in Milan that opened in May. I’m also excited about a future Chicago show at Kavi Gupta that focuses on similar themes politically. Lately I’ve been watching documentaries on Michael Milken and other financiers of the 1980s, which influence my current work. It’s a way of talking about today’s political situation in the U.S. without talking about the president. These guys in the ’80s behaved in horrendous ways—but now they have their foundations and are treated as gurus.

For these new shows, are you continuing to repurpose materials?
Yes—right now I’m working on mobiles that simulate large body parts, so that they’re surrounded by these moving giants. I’m also looking to use these portraits of Greek gods, except they’re wearing ’80s clothes. A lot of Gordon Gekko fashion! I’m interested in image and power in moving parts—fragments of a giant. The mobile is a new idea for me—I like the idea of it being like an “exquisite corpse” built out of these ’80s financiers. Our country’s culture is so center-right now, and there’s not a lot of pushback. Today, people ask what we’re going to use liberal arts for. Like, ‘You should just get an MBA.’ But what are you going to actually produce with an MBA? You’re really just moving money around. But this type of thinking is the air we breathe. It has filtered through culture over the decades, and that’s what my new work is trying to explore

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, 2017. Purchase Issue 4 and become an ALIVE member.

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