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Nearly everyone in Heyd Fontenot’s portraits is naked. Most are touching themselves, and no, not in that way. Rather, after shedding their clothes, the subjects of this Texan artist’s intimate paintings and drawings instinctively reach for their own bodies, posing with a hand on a hip or caressing a cheek, or with an arm draped across a thigh. Occasionally one model will embrace another’s shoulder. Self-assured and at ease, these people are, quite literally, in touch with themselves. It’s puzzling, then, to have encountered a warning sign and curtained-off galleries alerting visitors to the exhibition’s “mature” content. Perhaps the show’s title, The Very Queer Portraits of Heyd Fontenot, sounds potentially threatening to selected audiences. The work certainly is not. Fontenot’s elegant, distinctive style of caricatured bobbleheads with doe eyes sprouting from scaled-down, black-outlined bodies easily cancels out the shock of the nude—everyone is just too cute to be scandalous.
Fontenot’s formal approach, though, is not without bite. Take the seven small paintings collected in It Takes One to Know One, 2002–3, in which the artist, who is gay, seems to provocatively ask viewers if it’s possible to identify sexual orientation—or any other personality trait—by visual means only. What, for example, is the significance of the stuffed bear clutched by the man in Atila with Toy, 2003? Across the exhibition the artist keenly offers guessing games about dichotomies of all sorts: surface and depth, revealing and concealing, and normalization and difference, not to mention the alleged divide between fine art and illustration.
Fontenot’s group compositions on panels, with oil paint playing off beautiful grain patterning, are the most accomplished, but a cluster of thirty-two ink and watercolor sketches on paper captures the full range of the artist’s expressive powers. A serious self-portrait with cat; a pink-skinned girl with tan lines, three sensitive, bearded hipsters—these idiosyncratic works feel sincere. They’re also inexplicably queer in that other sense: How is that naked woman standing on a galloping racehorse, and why?