Where do isolated eyes wander? Perhaps outside the window, to reflect and to daydream. The two solo exhibitions of twenty-three-year-old Chicago painter Jake Fagundo follow the artist’s changing viewpoint through 2020. An earlier show, “All Set,” which ran November 5 through December 20, 2019 at Okay Gallery in Chicago presented introspective still-life paintings of the home. In opposition, “Exile on Main Street” which opens January 23 at Martha’s Contemporary in Austin, brings together paintings made during shelter-in-place that seek inspiration from memories and landscapes from outside the young artist’s home.
December 20, 2019: I spent one of the final days of 2019 with Jake Fagundo. It was the last night of his first solo exhibition, “All Set” at Okay Gallery. The paintings on display were still lifes of dinner tables, rendered flat and abstracted. Their primary color palettes gave the impression of storybook-like scenarios, as if “Goodnight Moon” had been stripped of text. The paintings were contemplative, even calm, but they harbored introspective anxieties. In the title painting, forks and knives reach toward one another across the table barely touching. Tension is meticulously hidden in the seemingly lighthearted paintings that Fagundo likens to pop songs. Some of them were even named after lyrics from the Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash.
“The paintings’ titles are ripped from song lyrics because I understand these paintings almost as songs,” Fagundo said. “They’re simple, somewhat formulaic, but they always surprise me the same way there’s always that one part of the song that catches you off guard.” He is fascinated with the tropes of Americana and uses them as thematic elements throughout his paintings. (Once I waited for him for twenty minutes at a bar five minutes from Fagundo’s home because he walked there breaking in a new pair of cowboy boots.)
After “All Set,” we packed up the paintings and headed to Fagundo’s Chinatown apartment to see more works. Parked outside the gallery was a red 1991 Buick Century that he purchased with the money he’d made selling the paintings from “All Set.” He named the car after the grandmother of Abstract Expressionism, Agnes Martin. On the car ride to his apartment, Fagundo told me about his plans to go on a road trip to Mississippi to visit the crossroads where legend says musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar. We circled the block to finish off a Rolling Stones song.
When we arrived at his apartment and went inside, his home was filled with more paintings like the ones in “All Set,” careful studies of household scenarios which he would continue to paint for several more months. Fagundo spent 2019 learning technique, and the paintings in “All Set” visualize this journey toward his commitment to the craft.
“I couldn’t paint,” he said, explaining what brought him to focus on still lifes. “I was relying too much on the fact that gestural sensibilities are fun,” he said. “But I wasn’t learning to paint. When I started making the work that was in the same vein as the work in the show, I was pushing against those instincts, and working really flat, with really tight edges, and focusing on color.”
January 5, 2021: A year later when I visit Fagundo, he is preparing for his new exhibition, “Exile on Main Street,” titled after the Rolling Stones album, at his new apartment in Ukrainian Village, with the same roommate as before, Max Capus. Themes of rock ‘n’ roll have not changed, and just like his previous home, the space is overflowing with paintings. Fagundo’s routine Instagram posts of new paintings kept me up to date with his evolving work. The painter, a senior at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, continued to make still life paintings similar to the works on “All Set,” until April when he began to experiment with personal narrative. “Exile on Main Street” displays this departure.
Fagundo’s still life series would aptly translate into material fit for painting in quarantine. Producing imagery of what is around in a “shelter” space could be very generative. But instead of continuing to paint tableaus of tables, books, chairs and indoor space, Fagundo looked outside the window of his home. Several paintings in “Exile on Main Street” are landscapes. “I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when” is a painting of Mars and the moon from outside Fagundo’s porch. “Everything up to that point had been left unresolved” has a confusing and claustrophobic perspective of the moon and a tree. Even “I Love Rock N Roll” is a painting of a shadowy figure urinating outside a window.
Other paintings in the upcoming exhibition depict memories before sheltering in place. Some portray moments from the trip to Mississippi Fagundo told me he was planning. It includes a portrait of his roommate in “Turning all the night time into the day” (Max in the headlights), and a painting of a tent in “Rush for a change of atmosphere.”
“Exile on Main Street” was produced by the Rolling Stones while seeking shelter in a villa in the South of France. Fagundo’s upcoming exhibition draws a comparison to the 1972 album. Rather than producing a music record, Fagundo brings together a collection of paintings made during a generative moment. (Celia Gastris)