Critical Desires: Race and Sexuality in the Work of Antoniohomemenu

Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui and Ramón Rivera-Servera, from The University of Texas at Austin

 

The collaborative work of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos under the signature of Antonio, has been primarily discussed within a framework of formal influences that range from the Baroque to Surrealism to Pop Art, (Pablo Picasso, 1995; le Bourhis, 1994; Agnes Martin, 1987). The transformation of the object of fashion by Antonio and his borrowing from artists such as Francisco de Goya (Spanish 1746-1828), Georges Braque( French, 1882-1963), and Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997), among others confirms the multiple artistic influences that such criticism traces in their body of work. Similarly, critics have positioned the social setting of Antonio's work within the luxurious world of high fashion and celebrity culture. Certainly, Antonio's relationship to fashion magnates such as Karl Lagerfeld and Paloma Picasso as well as visual artists of the ranks of Andy Warhol and fashion editors such as Anna Piaggi accurately locate him as a participant in this highly elite circuit. It seems however, that there are other equally important influences that have shaped Antonio's artistic oeuvre have been generally overlooked. Those influences do not come from the rarified spaces of high fashion but from the world of street culture, his own cultural background as a Nuyorican man, and the alternative spaces of queer sensibility and practices.

References abound to the influences of "ghetto culture," oversized boom boxes, the "jungle" quality of the streets of New York, and the raw sexuality of the racialized body, but little attention has been paid to the affirmative articulation of these subjects in Antonio's work. If mentioned, these issues have been addressed within the context of the exotiziced gaze of high fashion. Although the insertion of these issues in Antonio's constructed narratives is sometimes blunt (see plate with the two male figures in white suits and black hats facing each other) and at other times subtle (plate p. 128), his work necessitates a critical reading that is complicit with the subtextual articulations in his work. In this context, the subtext is not featured as a "minor" or "side" reading; rather, it occupies a central place that parallels the reading provided by the formal and established evaluation of his work.

This reading is thus an act of recovery and relocation of the potential centrality of alternative discourses constructed by Antonio within the world of fashion. If high fashion has historically operated under a visual heritage governed by an economy that values the Western tradition in the arts and construes the exotic "other" within a dynamic of appropriation, Antonio's visual trajectory directs us toward an approach where such economy is differently articulated. In the illustrations of Antonio the seemingly fethishized images of the "other" --- be it the urban gay man or the African American or Latina woman --- provide at the same time a intimate and solidary quality that is far removed from its traditional construction. This is not to suggest that there is only one valid reading of Antonio's work. In fact, it is precisely with and through the dominant discourses of the culture of high fashion that Antonio was able to create a strategy of representation that questions and critiques the world of fashion itself.

Portrait: Mike Morino, 1979.  Pencil / watercolor, 23 x 31"

Yves Saint Laurent Campaign, 1978.  Pencil, 18 x 22"

The work of Antonio participates fully within the production and circulation of fashion as a commercial product. The representations of men and women dressed in high couture are imbued with playfulness and pleasure. These qualities in his work contribute to the selling of the image and the clothing. Play and pleasure are sexually charged, as is demonstrated in his work for the Ives Saint-Laurent campaign in 1978 (plate p. 103). Antonio uses formal elements that help construct these qualities.

The two male figures in this illustration confront the viewer not only with of the frontal position of their bodies, but with gazes that dramatically intersect that of the onlooker. The gaze is at once challenging and devilishly seductive. The geometric quality of the bodies inhabits almost all the space. The figures are depicted from a vantage point that privileges the low parts of the bodies, creating a twin-pyramids effect that emphasizes the pelvic area in the mid- section of the composition. The figure on the right holds a leather briefcase that partially covers the genital area and at the same time calls attention to it with the pointing gesture of the opened triangular flap. The other figure holds in his left hand a pair of pointed shoes that resolves the phallic drama suggested by the briefcase. It is in this complex interaction of the juxtaposition of the accessories that the sexualized narrative is addressed through the language of the fetish.

If the above narrative confirms the traditionally sexualized nature of the fashion advertising, the dialogue between the two figures and their accessories provide at the same time a reaffirmation of an aesthetic of queer desire. This aesthetic is present throughout most of Antonio's oeuvre. In his motorcycle drawings, for example, Antonio explores queer sensibilities more explicitly. In his illustrations for Gentleman's Quarterly, from 1974 (Plate p. 88), Antonio fully exploits the iconic figure of the motorcycle not only as an idealized symbol of bravado masculinity but also exposes the ostensible sexual narrative behind its historical articulation. The motorcycle in this instance maneuvers through its own epistemology and emerges, much like the accessories above, re-articulated within an economy of queer desire. Gentleman's Quarterly, USA, 1974.  Mixed media, 18 x 28"
Gentleman's Quarterly, USA, 1974.  Mixed media, 18 x 28" The explosion of the motorcycle as a quintessential bad-boy icon can be traced to the pioneer works of Laslo Benedek with The Wild One, a film from 1953 and the literary work by Jack Kerouac, On the Road, published in 1957. Both of them considered within their medium, as some of the most influential works of the 1950s, shaping the popular culture of the decade. Benedek and Kerouac created iconic figures that embodied the philosophies that addressed the transitorial character of the times and the emergence of youth culture. The nomadic referent comes for these authors from a highly male-oriented location. The emphasis and the centrality of the male characters, as is the case with the Marlon Brando role in the Benedek film, and Kerouac's main protagonist, Dean Moriarty, speak about a male partnership and social organization in which demonstrations of affection and solidarity are allowed. The demonstrations of complicity and affection are charged with "maleness." At the same time that the formula of the conventional rituals of male socialization portrayed in other Hollywood films is used, a subtle shift creates a subtext. This subtext of homosocial affectual exchange was easily appropriated and eroticized within the male queer community.

By the 1960s the motorcycle, already established as part of mass culture, had become a powerful icon of subcultural transgression. Ironically, the ascension of the motorcycle into the popular imaginary marks its transformation into a high-priced commodity. It is precisely at the intersection between the motorcycle's transgressive qualities and its conflicted transformation into a symbol of hip status that Antonio demonstrates the fluidity of the object within multiple symbolic spaces and economies. Antonio makes the icon his own, manipulating the semiotic layers of nomadic masculinity and queer sexuality to create a contemporary version of the cowboy horse. This reconfiguration of frontier masculinity is transformed into the animated chaos of the new urban man.

In the illustrations for Gentleman's Quarterly, Antonio creates a chaotic scene through the dynamic montage of men and machine. There is no hierarchy between the body and the motorcycle in this multiperspective rendition of arms, legs, faces, abdomens in relation to headlights, tires, gas caps, handles, and accessories. Rather than portraying the accessory as a passive complement to the body, the accessory competes with the body. In this competition the clothes are partially ripped from the bodies and the skin is torn in an act of uncovering that fully sexualizes the idealized flesh. These pulling and ripping actions are executed by multiple disembodied hands, revealing the subtextual narrative of queer spectatorship.

Issues of race also appear in Antonio's early oeuvre. While the absence of representations of the full-fleshed bodies of women and men of color was a standard practice within the world of fashion illustration, their aesthetic sensibilities were ever present. This presence in the art and illustrations from the late 1800s on was, however, that of the exoticism of the "other." World-renowned masters in the ranks of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gaugin, and Henri Matisse found their inspiration and aesthetic influences in the colonized territories of Africa and Asia. It was a fascination with cultural otherness that enabled the historical innovations of European art and gave raise to a modernist aesthetic. Antonio cites eloquently from this tradition, extending its influence in contemporary visual practices, but marking within the aesthetic traditions of the visual arts and the exotic extravagance of fashion the emergent body of the racial other.

 

As early as 1963, Antonio created representations of women of color in his illustrations. In Fashions of the Times (Plate p.71) from the same year, Antonio presents Picasso-esque images of models in lightweight cotton mini-dresses, subtly waving their hair in cubist fashion. This small gesture, together with the shaded tonality of their skin, inscribes a different bodily presence within the world of fashion illustration. Furthermore, the tropical reference articulated by the decorative flower headdress and earring on the models, proposes a different narrative for the origins of the flower-print- design dress worn by the figure on the left. The image then, innocent in its representation of the fashionable wear, radically relocates the source material of fashion to the tropical lands referenced in the adornment and the bodies of the racialized models. Fashions of the Times, 1963.  Mixed media, 14 x 26"

Italian Vogue 1971. Pentel, 18 x 24"

 

Italian Vogue 1971. Pentel, 18 x 24"

 

Italian Vogue 1971. Pentel, 18 x 24"

This reference to the tropicalized gaze of the fashion industry is most explicitly articulated in Antonio's 1971 illustrations for Italian Vogue (Plates pp. 80-81). Here, the full bodies of African American women are traced in the whiteness of the paper. It is the brown color of their flesh, together with the green of the printed palm trees that flash out, while the white clothes blend into the background. These women address their gaze to the viewer in an oblique and coquettish manner. Their faces have a familiar ring. They reference famous 1930s singer and dancer Josephine Baker. Furthermore, the body poses of these models talk directly to the well-known poses of the dancer. La Baker inspired Antonio not only as a famous African American woman, but he seems to recall for the viewer what Baker came to symbolize: the denunciation of segregation and Jim Crow. For Baker the only alternative to the racial tensions and violence of the times was self-exile. Antonio's illustrations of African American women's bodies with so many referents to Baker and her art and times seems to bring into the present, a counter action that is equally important, he performs in his illustrations a symbolic act of desegregation.

            Italian Vogue 1971. Pentel, 18 x 24"

The triangulation of the three figures in this composition displays a hierarchy that emphasizes Josephine Baker's star quality while at the same time pointing out her roots in African American performance. Baker is at the upper central part of the composition, coming out from behind the stage curtains. Her left leg seems to emerge from the body of the figure at the right. Although the massive figures of the male performers occupy more than half of the space, the figure of Baker dominates. The emergence of Baker's fame is both a reaffirmation of her African roots and at the same time an act of separation from the spectacle of blackness in the US stage. The performer had a unique position within the European avant-garde. She was held, by her European audiences, as a revolutionary artist that embodied both the subject and object of the modernist aesthetic.

Antonio's interest in the figure and symbolism of Josephine Baker is better express in a powerful appropriation that the artist does of Paul Colin's famous promotional poster for Baker's La Revue Nègre, performed at Paris' renowned Champs Èlysèes in 1925. Antonio's interpretation of Colin's poster was published in Marie Claire, in 1983 (Plate p.126). The artist manipulates the original, which positions Josephine as the central figure, surrounded by two African American male musicians. The dancer is represented in one of her famous poses, wearing a revealing 1920s flapper's attire with strong African influences. The male musicians are depicted in black tuxedos and the figure on the right wears the stereotypical white Derby hat. Their exaggerated facial features were fashioned as those in American minstrel shows.

 

Marie Clare, France, 1983.  Pencil / watercolor, 13 x 17"

Antonio's appropriation of Colin's poster can be read as an act of identification. In a mirroring impulse, Antonio uses Colin's poster as a reference to his own efforts to construct/deconstruct his latinidad within the world of fashion. In his illustration, the male figures remain. La Baker disappears, however, and it is through this intervention, that Antonio successfully addresses the absence of women of color in the world of fashion. In her place, two figures of white female models appear. Unlike the narrative of emergence staged in Colin's illustration of Josephine Baker as the product of African American popular entertainment, these figures are superimposed over the minstrel faces, exposing instead a narrative of surrogation dominant in the fashion world. In this, dynamic whiteness appears through a colonizing maneuvering of its racial subordinates. Antonio addresses this substitution critically by merely sketching the models, in their white suits, over the voluminous male characters, which maintain the colors and placing of the original composition.

The emphasis on the presence of whiteness, although foregrounded in the composition, has a ghostly character that blends into the background, pointing out its insidious role as the subject and author of representation. The iconic status of Baker and Antonio's authorship is underlined by the disappearance of the dancer. The act of disappearance and substitution is then to be read as an ironic exposure of the dominant constructs of fashion illustration and the representation of whiteness in general, and the emergence in that world of a Nuyorican artist such as Antonio.
Vanity no. 8, Italy: Valentino, Moschino, Kriza, 1983. Pencil / watercolor, 19 x 27"

Antonio's fascination with the iconic figure of Josephine Baker, demonstrated in numerous other illustrations, is no coincidence (Plates pp. 177). The stardom of the often- stereotypical performances of blackness and her marginal character within US political discussion of race, together with the recognition of her artistic innovation in European art circuits, mirror Lopez's own negotiations of his Puerto Ricanness within the fashion industry. These negotiations are enabled by identification through race, especially with the Africanist presence in the Puerto Rico of Lopez's birth and the United States of his youth and early adulthood. His years living in New York and his professional work in the world of fashion certainly provided him with a distinct experience as a man of color.

 

Lopez's migration to Europe, where his work was first recognized and internationalized, parallels Baker's own strategic exile. In his travel, Lopez gains a distance from the spectacularity of otherness, both sexual and racial, prevalent in U.S. popular entertainment and mass media but carries with him its symbolic economies, articulating them critically in difference.

 

A reading of Antonio's oeuvre ought to consider the radical potential of Lopez's represent- ations. His playful manipulation of the stereotype creates a critical narrative that both recognizes the historical valence of otherness, albeit its often homophobic and racist logic, and liberates it for contemporary rearticulations. Antonio's images cite pleasurably and irreverently from these discourses to produce minoritarian affirmations that are proud and unapologetic. Vanity no.2, Italy:  Versace, 1982.  Pencil / watercolor, 13 1/2 x 19" The strategy is purposely ambiguous, operating from within the very systems that his visuals critique, and thus incredibly powerful in his dare to engage a larger and more diverse audience. His work thus revels on the multiplicity of meanings and desires provoked by a single image and challenges criticism to remain dynamic, enjoying the clear articulations of high art traditions evident in his work, but searching for the equally important genealogies articulated in his strategy.

 

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