Business in the Front, Party in the Back

Heyd Fontenot's new paintings of naked people show the artist's looser, sloppier side

Fontenot's <i>Golden Carmillo</i>
Fontenot's Golden Carmillo

Rachel Koper

'Business in the Front, Party in the Back'

Art Palace

Through March 11

Heyd Fontenot has a stunning show of his new portrait paintings up at Art Palace. Featuring groupings of large oils on canvas and montages of small watercolors on paper, the exhibit shows a deep dramatic tension between the characters. This is established with plenty of direct eye contact and couples posing together. Big Dan With Nigel features a man who stares off to the left, ignoring a woman on his lap who stares at his face, her attentive gaze going unreturned. In Dave & Ellen Embracing, it's the woman who won't stare back at the man. In all of the large works, the situations are similarly loaded emotionally and point to complicated relationships, partially requited love, and a variety of longings. Are they tragic? No more so than real life.

For a show full of naked people, it's quite serious. The subjects include men and women, donkeys and goats, as well as Asians, beards, doe-eyed brunettes, and sturdy Polish builds. In his statement about the show, Fontenot writes: "Coitus/conquest is not the focus. Sexual expression is a metaphor for communication. What attracts me most are social politics, personalities, and relationships, either actual or fictionalized."

Fontenot has also incorporated expressionism in loose backgrounds. A virtuosic talent, he leaps from realism to a Frankenthaler-styled abstract expressionism. The contrast and tension between the tight rendering of the figures and the loose color fields is a unique effect. Fontenot's controlled ability to render takes the back seat, and we see a more emotional side, with bleeding and wild colors that add to the dramatic narrative aspects of the work. These backgrounds feel vulnerable, spontaneous, like he's finally letting us see a sloppy side of him. Fontenot said, "I will expose my personal vulnerabilities just as the models have."

His past backgrounds were tidy, hard-edged, like geometric pinstripes. The new pieces such as Double Amy shatter this pattern; the paint is applied in great washes, with swishy brushwork, pours, drips, and splatters. It feels energetic, unburdened, raw, and honest. His good composition and sophisticated palette remain intact while he uses the negative spaces to complement the drama and interpersonal relationships.

So as not to be one-sidedly serious, Fontenot calls the show "Business in the Front, Party in the Back." As a Michigander, I came to know a mullet as a "hockey haircut," meaning one that didn't interfere with your vision on the ice and blocked the wind on the back of your neck. It was omnipresent and no big deal unless the mullet's owner flirted and said, "Business in the front, party in the back." This was often interpreted as a sexual proposition – back seats of cars being well-documented hotbeds of fornication. Fontenot is from Louisiana, where the mullet had nothing to do with hockey, but in his artist's statement, he makes reference to the haircut, wisely noting that "it tried to accommodate a professional façade while giving a glimpse into the wearer's wilder, rebellious side. ... Seeking legitimacy has its complications and its awkward results."

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Business in the Front, Party in the Back, Heyd Fontenot, Art Palace

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