Editors' pick

The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot

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The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot photo
"The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot" courtesy of Justin Schier and the artist

Editorial Review

Exhibit review: 'The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot' at U-Md. Art Gallery

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 17, 2010

A visit to the current exhibition at the University of Maryland's Art Gallery might have you thinking about "The Joy of Sex."

Don't worry. "The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot" is not an erotic art show. But, yes, there's lots nudity, including one picture of a man in an obvious state of arousal. No one is having sex, though parents might want to think twice about taking the kids.

It's just that the paintings and drawings by the Austin-based artist -- depicting, for the most part, the defiantly average bodies of his friends -- are rendered in a style that's more than slightly reminiscent of Charles Raymond and Chris Foss's once-controversial illustrations for the 1972 sex manual (illustrations that were based, incidentally, on photos of the then-hirsute Raymond making love to his wife). There's a matter-of-fact, almost clinical ordinariness to the fleshy folds and occasional bulging tummies in Fontenot's art.

Then there are the bobbleheads. Let me explain.

Sometimes Fontenot paints just a face. He has real talent. His portrait busts are among the best works in the show. You feel you know his subjects, though you've never met them. But whenever the artist does the full figure, the head and the eyes are noticeably, even grotesquely, oversize. They register as people -- real people -- but they're also somewhat alien, like the offspring of a liaison between an earthling and a little green man.

Fontenot, in all likelihood, would be pleased.

That foreign quality is precisely what makes his paintings so, well, queer. The artist is openly gay. So, too, are some of his subjects, though Fontenot keeps you guessing. (The title of one of his works is "It Takes One to Know One.") But the title of the show refers less to homosexuality than to a more general sense of oddness, of disengagement, that pervades the work. It's as if, Fontenot seems to suggest, our heads have somehow become detached from our bodies.

Not literally, of course. But by holding a mirror up to us -- albeit one stolen from the funhouse, one that represents and distorts, in equal measure -- Fontenot invites viewers to think about, and perhaps to reconnect with, their physical selves. Not just the inner essence -- that's the traditional job of portraiture -- but the outer essence as well. And that includes, yes, our buttocks and other nasty bits.

Which brings me to the other way in which the show is reminiscent of "The Joy of Sex." Fontenot depicts the nudity of strangers without shame. In fact, he makes it almost cuddly.

In doing so, he's reminding us of something that some of us may have forgotten: Underneath our clothes, we're all as naked as the day we were born.