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José Lerma's parables of power failure at CAM Raleigh

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When you stand on the small white pedestal at the site of the king's third eye, the curtains along the gallery's back wall are set aglow, magically illuminated in an almost blinding wash of platinum light. Only one person at a time can stand upon the pedestal, a privileged position that allows the viewer to experience the ascendency, pre-eminence and metaphoric luminosity associated with the state of being king.

This is the power spot at the symbolic center of The Credentialist, José Lerma's installation currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Raleigh.

The exhibition is anchored by an elaborate floor sculpture, layers of carefully stacked shapes of carpet that imbue the space with the quality of being an overwrought designer playroom. A posted sign warns of the uneven surface as one proceeds in museum-issue powder-blue shoe coverings. The modular components of cut-out carpet coalesce in a familiar image, set forth in a scale so large that its ideal viewing would be from a celestial vantage point. But instead of representing the persona of a woodland creature or popular cartoon character as one might expect in a kid's playroom, Lerma's carpet frieze portrays the bewigged head of Charles II of Spain (1661–1700), the last ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty and the very embodiment of the ills, both political and genetic, that arise from a single family that attempts to inbreed with itself across generations in order to retain power.

The third eye, identified in esoteric circles as the sixth chakra, is said to be the locus of insight and awareness. Inasmuch as Charles II represents the epitome of the degradation and failure of absolute power, Lerma's use of this exalted node as a focal point for the work needs to be read as ironic in the extreme. Indeed, The Credentialist serves as a fluid critique, fluctuating through history, through a cornucopia of histories, applicable as much to the centuries-long Hapsburg reign as to the painfully recent presidential dynasties of both Bushes, whose policies of corporate privilege have come home to roost in our present moment. As a result, Lerma's work is infused with a sense of real-time urgency despite its visual referents to a distant past.

Lerma's obsession with the trappings, signs and signals of antiquated royalty invokes all manner of tangents, trivialities and patent absurdities, especially because his references to the heads of long-dead monarchs and former VIPs of Western civilization have more in common with cartoon characters and coloring book silhouettes than with High Art. Often rendered without faces, the portraits function more readily as logos or conceptual design statements than the portraiture he mimics, originally rendered in immortalizing oils rather than in the crude swatches of cheap institutional carpeting favored by the artist.

Propped up against the gallery walls are three large-scale canvases. At first glance the works look like blow-ups of doodles, behemoth pages filled by the idle hand of one whose mind has wandered elsewhere. Upon inspection, the works evolve and bubble forth with embedded imagery and encrypted meanings. We make out aristocratic heads, swarms of eyes and overt symbols, such as, in the case of "Madre Perla V-11" (2011), crosses, haloes and an open book held aloft in a manner that suggests it is not just any book but, indeed, the Good Book. The work is done in two variants of ballpoint-pen blue that make us think about blue as an idea, the purple-blue of royalty and a dark Bic indigo that suggests "blue blood." According to CAM's executive director and exhibition curator, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, each of the three paintings on view (yes, they are referred to as "paintings") deals with themes of religion, war and sex. However, beyond the overarching themes of these works is their facture, that is, their sense of the personal, compulsive and unconscious impulses that drive us to make marks without thinking. By approaching epic Baroque themes through the medium of the doodle, Lerma implicates us all as cultural filters, and posits high culture as personal, compulsive, neurotic.

Another phantom head that haunts The Credentialist is that of John Law (1671–1729), the so-called inventor of modern finance, whose wrongheaded policies led to the collapse of France's Banque Generale and forced him to leave the American state of Louisiana in disgrace, in disguise and in drag. Perhaps this odd fact is at least partially the reason for Lerma's incorporation of pink parachutes of British military vintage in the Law-centric works on view. Heads recur throughout Lerma's body of work, functioning to some extent in the way heads are imprinted on currency, a financial theme borne out in his references to Law and in his whimsical prints of reinterpreted coin faces. Lerma forces the association between figure heads and money, raising consciousness about the heads we carry around with us in our wallets and about the consensual hallucination, the big head trip, that is our world economy.

When you visit CAM, be sure to head downstairs and vibe with Andy Hall's Form Special: Solar Projects and Site Collages, a delightful mélange of works that includes chairs designed and built by the artist in single one-hour performances, a sound piece that literally rocks out and the opportunity to grab a live mike and belt out karaoke tunes on the topic of sunshine.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Heads you lose."

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