Gina M. Contreras: Painting Her Own Reality

Gina M. Contreras, Sola Chola @ Park Life Gallery, 220 Clement Street, San Francisco, July 12-August 18, 2019

A review by Tamsin Smith, first published by Juxtapoz Magazine on August 12, 2019.

What would a film reel of your inner thoughts look like? Close your eyes and imagine all those looping voices, memories, desires, and secret musings. Would you dare to share? Gina M. Contreras, a San Francisco artist with Central Valley roots, goes there — and then some. Contreras takes self-portraiture into raw, sometimes ridiculous, and often sublimely affecting territory.

Contreras fills her paintings with a version of herself in private settings — usually in what one takes to be her bedroom — surrounded by pictorial renderings of her intimate thoughts. An aura of phallic “to-do” lists flutter and float. In one painting, a penis is imaginatively reassembled on four sheets of paper and arranged as if to enter the artist. Paper abounds in Contreras’ work, again luring us to consider the various stories unfolding.

On the scene are novena candles and other saintly presences find themselves among family relics and reminders of the artist’s Mexican-American heritage. Ann Rule’s true crime tale of Ted Bundy looms in the foreground near the photo of a young man, who looks every bit the chola heartbreaker. Versions of the smaller paintings occasionally appear taped to the walls of the larger work, emphasizing the effect of a circular dialogue.

Yet this descriptive chronicle of the work illustrates the dangerous temptation of reading symbols to tell someone else’s story. Contreras is herself a beautiful, dynamic, energetic woman. Meet her and it’s hard to connect the melancholy painted portraits with the exuberant flesh and blood artist. The contrast is part of what makes the humor in these paintings so apparent. A vibe of light-hearted teasing comes through in even the most sober scene. What degree of self-awareness and honesty does it require to paint oneself with a sage stick preparing to cleanse one’s vagina of negative (dick) energy.

Contreras’ empowered yet vulnerable self-portraits evoke perhaps the most well-known Latina artist, Frida Kahlo, who similarly centered herself amid emotionally-charged aspects and symbols. Kahlo also presented her own modernist twist on the narrative ex-voto paintings of rural Mexico, which blended creative expression and spiritual faith These echoes in Contreras work remind us not only of her ancestry; they remind us that the chain of connection from artist to artist through time is essential and additive. Where Kahlo uses traditional Tehuana clothing as armor and adornment, Contreras suggests that our bare skin may be all the raiment she needs or can truthfully depend upon. In some ways, it is the more honest declaration.

As to technical artistry, Contrera moves between canvas and paper, using even applications of acrylic in both bright and earthy tones. A successful series of smaller paintings strip subject matter down to basics. A single form or a couple is set against a two-color background. These human “still lives” act to chronicle — and in some instances mirror — the set-piece reveries that the artist reflects upon in the larger canvases.

Contreras’ candor challenges her audience to confront their own reactions to such graphic emotional material. For instance, it is striking how arresting the simple sketch of a penis still is for many eyes in the 21st Century. Society is used to bare breasts, but male genitalia seems somehow more scandalous than the female mons pubis. American culture. Latin culture, and gender culture are all brimming with stories whose negative energy could use some airing out.

Contreras’ work tempts one to remember the danger of analyzing and judging each other’s choices until we’re ready to confront our own with such admirable wit, creativity and openness.

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