Notes on Rescue Breathing
What is it about Abel Gutierrez’s Rescue Breathing While Leaning Over The Stern that makes the viewer so uncomfortable? An image, over the course of its lifespan, experiences new contexts and circumstances that produce a variety of diverging meanings. Some images enter into the world overflowing with meaning and through the passing of time that meaning slowly fades. Other images began as banal things that, at one time in history, would have shocked no one. Some of these banal images remain this way indefinitely, while others mutate and develop new meanings, new contexts, and new circumstances.[i] What could be more banal than a demonstrational photograph from a mid-century issue of Boy’s Life magazine?
The source image was meant to depict clearly one example of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and, within its historical context, was completely innocent. However, reproduced on canvass the image gains a new force that it previously lacked. The effect is an extension of Sigmund Freud’s notion of psychological projection, in which the viewer imagines that beliefs and feelings originate from the image instead of their own psyche.[ii] Thus when the image invokes contemporary issues surrounding sexuality, gender, and children in a manner befitting Lolita, it is almost unsurprising how some viewers react.[iii] However, it is the transgressive potential of the banal that makes this affect within Gutierrez’s images relevant in relation to the state of contemporary art practice.
Consider Rescue Breathing While Treading Water. This painting, like the first, appropriates an image from Boy’s Life magazine. The reproduction of this image, painted in an ethereal post-impressionist style, at first glance suggest an intimate moment. Perhaps it is a hot summer evening and a, forbidden, of course, young romance is taking place in the water. The boy on the left is leaning in to perform the taboo act of kissing another boy. Yet this fantasy, projected onto the image, denies the reality that one boy is saving the other from drowning. So why is it that such a fantasy can so easily be constructed and applied? It originates from our own society’s repressive social norms and mores that dominate our everyday lives, and it is the transgressive ability of these images to put into those very ideas into question.[iv]
Much like Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful series, Gutierrez uses appropriation combined with traditional painting techniques that challenge our perception of contemporary society.[v] It is not so much that the Rescue Breathing series is making an explicit statement but instead forces the viewer into a state of conflict that requires them to think for themselves. Gutierrez’s paintings are completely audience oriented, effacing the typical questions about the intentions and desires of the artist. It is this affect that reinvigorates contemporary art practice and, much like the appropriation art that has come before, brings the social and political back into the gallery.
[i] For more on the semiotics of the image and the logic of late stage capitalism, see Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994. Print.
[ii] For more on Freudian Projection theory, see Freud, Sigmund, J. Moussaieff Masson, and Wilhelm Fliess. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1985. Print.
[iii] Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita accounts the inner workings of a man who sexually desires a young girl. The novel brings into question the ways in which society itself sexualizes children and, in a way, even encourages pedophilia. Over the course of the novel, the reader begins to empathize with the protagonist and thus, like Gutierrez’s Rescue Breathing series, forces the reader to transgressively question their own assumptions about themselves and society. See Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
[iv] The Marxist philosopher and critic Henri Lefebvre asserts in his Critique of Everyday Life that it is in our everyday lives that we are the most repressed by capitalism and dominant social norms. He states that even our most general assumptions of society are manufactured through the logic of capitalism and that even in our most banal experiences of day-to-day life, we are being repressed. Gutierrez’s Rescue Breathing series embodies this idea by portraying the banal everyday of boy scouts and young men transitioning into adulthood, playfully engaging the audience to reconsider contemporary societal expectations of youth, growing up, masculinity, and sexuality. By bringing the banal into focus, Gutierrez shows us that the semiotic logic of Western capitalist societies is flawed and that we must begin to reconsider how we approach the difficult concepts and imagery that we typically leave in the back of our subconscious. For more on everyday life, the banal, and contemporary society, see Lefebvre, Henri. Everyday Life in the Modern World. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
[v] Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967–72) is a series of paintings of home interiors that are clean, composed, and immaculate yet soldiers “invading” these homes interrupt the calm images of domestic space. The soldiers, images appropriated from photographs from the Vietnam War, bring into focus the complacency of society with war and violence and force the audience to “bring the war home.” Gutierrez, although operating in a different political register, creates a similar environment within his paintings. For more on Rosler’s work, see Aliaga, Alan Gilbert Juan Vicente. Martha Rosler: The House, The Street, the Kitchen. Granada: Diputación Provincial De Granada, 2009. Print.
[This essay was originally written in the Summer of 2011 for Gutierrez’s show Swimming at the Luis de Jesus Gallery, now located in Culver City, CA. For more of Gutierrez’s work, visit his website. For more images of the show and the Luis de Jesus Gallery, visit their website.]
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