The Inventive Mind of Painter Fernanda Lavera at Manolis Projects, Miami
Written By Bruce Helander
Most successful artists are a product of an evolutionary development from their hometown surroundings and personal ambitions. Some were fortunate enough to be born into a creative environment, while others intuitively knew to gravitate to a metropolis. Fernanda Lavera is a gifted artist who fits like a glove into a historical context where the validation and potent vibrancy of one’s hometown or an adoptive city is often what gives a vital professional component for achievement. A hometown girl is making her way into fame and critical acclaim, for which she credits personal motivation and her invigorating surroundings. Buenos Aires has a powerful, proactive arts community and a remarkably energetic street art environment, from murals to graffiti, which has been an artistic blessing for Lavera.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1975, Maria Fernanda Lavera realized at a young age a love of painting and creativity through an aunt, who opened Fernanda’s eyes to the joys of sketching and an appreciation for the textures and colors in the rhythm of the city of her birth. Her aunt also gave her brushes, canvas, and most importantly, encouragement and purpose at a crucial time in her artistic development. As her vision expanded and matured, she began to utilize the images she saw every day on public walls, and eventually she began to incorporate the spirit of this illustrative graffiti surrounding her neighborhood and the hypnotic colors, symbolism and inspiration that only a cosmopolitan city can offer. Fernanda is following a great tradition of artists who generated excitement and discovery with the aid of urban momentum and municipal innovation. Renowned artist Lucio Fontana, who became legendary throughout the world as a contemporary artist, owed his early accomplishments to the support he received in Buenos Aires.
Significant critical praise and amazing collector support has propelled Fernanda into an enviable position in the world of art. Famed American record producer, Grammy winner and art collector Clive Davis said, “When I saw Lavera’s work in Buenos Aires in 2016, I immediately felt her enormous talent… a second-generation neo-expressionist with a very special feminine twist, Lavera is the real deal. I love her art and the stories behind her art.”
As one learns more about Fernanda Lavera and starts to examine her work, there is the realization that her daily surroundings are a vital component to her singular painting technique and how it developed. For example, her hometown of Buenos Aires not only is the capital and largest city in Argentina but also is the undisputed capital of street art on the planet, with the world’s largest collection of outdoor murals, as well as continuing to produce first class artists as evidenced in the most recent group project representing Argentina for the Venice Biennale. There is an impressive artist community in the city that remains vibrant and successful. Like the back streets of SoHo’s Cast Iron district in Manhattan that nurtured and encouraged countless street artists, from Shepard Fairey and Richard Hambleton to Basquiat, the abundance of abandoned buildings and blank walls in Buenos Aires, especially its warehouse district, were readymade blank canvases for thought-provoking public murals. Unlike New York and London, there were almost no restrictions on where an artist can paint in the entire city, and they do not need authorization from the local authority if they have the approval of the property owner. So, creativity is free flowing with opportunity, purpose and camaraderie. The environment provides a free pass for area artists to develop unlimited varieties of individual methods that germinated from the street art sensibility and freedom of imaginative expression.
The city is saturated with hundreds of colorful contemporary billboard size art that not only impels local artists like Fernanda but opens the minds and promotes the wide acceptance of a fascinating mix of narrative expressions to the general public. Accordingly, it’s an obvious conclusion that the constant exposure to a street art aesthetic in Buenos Aires, particularly neighborhoods like Villa Urquiza, acts like a constant subconscious exotic spice in the air that constantly flavors the visual style of conventional painters.
There is an impressive list of inventive artists, like Fernanda, who point to their good fortune in using a supportive urbanite area to gain recognition and career achievements. Artists like Andy Warhol, who lived in a working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, knew intuitively that in order to make it he would have to move to Manhattan, despite the risks, where artistic vitality and city energy were in endless supply. Artists have a way of narrowing the odds and seeking the nurturing guidance and comradely discussions that tend to bind painters together, to share each other’s take on a new work or direction and to commemorate triumphs. For example, there was the influential Cedar Bar in lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, known as an intellectual watering hole for formative discussions that accelerated the grown of abstract expressionism in the 1950s. A mixed crew of emerging avant-garde writers, poets and artists began to argue their personal philosophies of a new painterly frontier at the end of the day.
Prominent names such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline and Helen Frankenthaler gained impetus and endorsement from the city that naturally supported the arts—galleries, multiple museums, art critics and curators’ artists assembled due to the magnetic attraction of the city that didn’t sleep. Pop artist James Rosenquist began his art career in New York as a sign painter, and throughout his long and successful career continued to incorporate billboard-like imagery of graphic advertising symbols, consumer culture, popular icons and calligraphic fragments into his paintings—elements that still appeal as subjects for today’s street artists.
The street culture of lower Manhattan in the 1980s provided an exposed public canvas that was clandestinely generated by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat (SAMO), Daze, Lady Pink, Keith Haring and Dondi White, who sensed the valuable superiority of combining street art sensitivity onto stretched canvas. The graffiti artist with the street name “CRASH” was the first to make it to the bigtime through a controversial exhibit at the legendary Sidney Janis Gallery. Much of what now can be defined as modern street art has well-documented origins dating from New York City’s graffiti boom, with its infancy in the 1960s, maturation in the 1970s and peaking with the spray-painted full car subway train murals of the 1980s, which was centered in the Bronx.
Paris, which was the undisputed center of the art world for several centuries, also had a street culture of open cafés that interacted with a walkable city of lights. A young Pablo Picasso loved the streets of Paris, their famous cafés, the artistic tradition and their creative classic pot-au-feu. The celebrated French artist Jacques Villeglé scoured the streets of Paris for poster and billboard fragments, which he turned into stunning collages. Blek le Rat, the official first street artist from Paris (or anywhere), cut out paper stencils of standing mice that he would clandestinely spray paint in black on public buildings at night, which started an art revolution and illegal vandalism of anonymous street painting and galvanized a new generation of ‘public’ artists to play ‘cat and mouse’ with the police as they applied their outdoor spray-painting technique.
Maria Fernanda Lavera is fortunate to have a stimulating studio environment of her own making, and it encompasses an impressive practical space for large-scale canvases to be produced simultaneously, which often form a memorable ‘signature’ throughout her work. Like the creative impetus in other metropolitan areas, Fernanda has captured a delightful spirit that in many ways pays a kind homage to the city of her childhood and the absorption of creative energy and visual influences that continue to be the framework and structural animated compositions that are delightfully fresh and idiosyncratic.
It is imperative to note that the birthplace of the Argentine tango originated on the back streets of Buenos Aires and Rio del la Plata, where often dance, poetry, music, theatre and street art are seen as one all identifiable encompassing art form. This native dance is a cultural symbol and evolved exotically, “connected at the hip,” as they say, with other local forms of expression and passion. The most memorable tango song is “Hernando’s Hideaway,” with catchy lyrics that rhyme with Fernanda. Her grandparents were in love with the tango’s movements and poetry, and perhaps instilled in the young painter a love of rhythm, dancing and juxtaposition. Now, these heavily populated cities are taking a cue from new breakthrough culture and social forms that merge from other countries and infiltrate the national folklore. This light-spirited variety of flamenco merged with the milonga, a fast, sexy, pulsing and often disreputable Argentine dance that was banned by government proclamation in 1789 for overt sensual public expression. Many avant-garde visual artists found a muse in the dramatic moves, repeat patterns, swirls and twirls, vivid outfits, passionate self-expression and finally the synchronicity and mesmerizing posturing of two dancing partners in sync. It also is noteworthy to remember that Rauschenberg incorporated dance into his performance art.
“Loteria Mexicana” (2019) is a rambunctious work filled with clues and innuendo. The painting refers to a medieval Italy in the 15th century, adapted by the Frenchman Clemente Jacques in 1887, where the cards in the composition represent Mexican society and its cast of intriguing characters.
The artist’s work titled “To Have to See” (2016) is reminiscent of a theater set showcasing several actors that offer graphic commentary on humanity’s ills. Like Picasso’s “Guernica” and Diego Rivera’s controversial murals, Fernanda observes and criticizes with a brush the environment which she lives. In this tumultuous urban drama, the female as a central character becomes the artist’s alter ego, a woman named Doris. Someone is in the process of robbing Doris in broad daylight with a gun pointed at her head dead center in the middle of the city. Yet, no one seems to see her distress and obvious danger. No one seems to care. Fernanda Lavera adds some social justice; using abstracted reality as a quick storyline, which produces an awareness that follows an illustrious custom of artists making people conscious of society’s injustices.
Another less figurative composition titled “Hombre Araña” is decorated with geometric diamond shapes, circles in a row, and a central outline of a cubist face filled with intrigue and angst. Most artists will trace their road to maturity with long, exasperating hours of experimentation and the risks of invention. Fernanda’s work clearly is set in a narrative technique that allows her to transmit sensation, feelings and sometimes personal experiences one accumulates throughout life.
In the work titled “The Mind of Men III” (2018), a trio of talking heads that seem to share the same mouthpiece offer the viewer three opinions similar to the classic advertising sign of “Pep Boys,” the well-known car service chain, which displays the founding partners Manny, Moe and Jack. Each head with an open mouth has a direct coded message of truth over fiction. “The Mind of Men III” is yet another instance of Fernanda’s unusual choice to purposely limit her palette to only three or four colors (in this case, light green, baby blue and a whitewashed background).
In “Mondo Killer,” a title indicative of another lyric, “Psycho Killer” by David Byrne (whose artwork is now represented by PACE gallery), who first performed in the early CBGB’s punk rock downtown scene with his band Talking Heads. In both cases depicted lyrics are cause for apprehension as the central theme of the painting is a skeleton head outline with bulging blue eyes on a violent blood red foundation that is swinging out of control. Skulls and bones often appeared in early 1970s graffiti, particularly with Basquiat as well the punk subculture and the No Wave movement, and are still an impetus for tattoos, clothing designs and a host of memorable band names, including Art Attacks, The B-52s and The Clash, who were also artists.
In a glowing, mostly yellow-tinted painting titled “Salida Del Sol” (2016), a sprawling flat background is cleverly incorporated as a substitute for an urban wall where various contemporary symbols are scratched in the canvas as if sidewalk pedestrians contributed to its anonymous sign language and essential motif. Amplifying the layout are two feathery-winged creatures redolent of an Ed Koren cartoon in The New Yorker. High above are two Egyptian-like hieroglyphics, and two pyramids are added for emphasis. The painting serves as a quasi-billboard for self-expression through anonymous graffiti that attempts to tell a veiled story of intrigue and history but on a well-lit stage.
Fernanda also is inspired by Antonio Berni, a great Argentinian artist from the 20th century who experimented with neo-figurism in the 1960s, where his characters “Jancito and Ramona” were invented to speak about social matters of concern. As the years pass so does the art of our times. A perfect example is the current popularity of art by African American artists who skillfully fashioned emotional works of suffering and inequality. Artist Kara Walker particularly was successful after leaving the Rhode Island School of Design, her portrayals of slavery and suffering in her works led to her being included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial.
As Fernanda said, “Today, globalization opened up a cyber-technique world, where all my characters were born as well. ‘Sr. Freeck’ is a cartoonish persona that arrived from the bowels of the internet to manifest and talk about matters of social distress. “Mujer Hormiga,” which speaks about gender violence, issues that come with modernity, and were not discussed or confronted in the past; other paintings present a narrative of violent confrontation. The directness and primitivism of Basquiat echoes in me, as I tell histories of my beloved city with graffiti that speaks in a narrative context.”
In addition, her inspiration comes from groups like CoBra, a faction of German artists, who after the fall of the Berlin wall, manifested their content in a new-expressionist context. In Fernanda’s work, hidden behind overpainting, strategic stains and drips, sublimated with glowing hues and an artist’s license for idiosyncratic abstraction, there also is a critical concern for social issues, such as mistreatment of women, gender violence and equal justice, which follows a long and honored ritual of artists speaking to the ills of our society (see the work of Diego Rivera) and a visual reminder of the inherent consequences of ‘looking the other way.’
The life story of Maria Fernanda Lavera is a curious mix of assimilating early opportunities and influences that have shaped an exciting professional career and prompted her to develop a distinctive and dynamic perceptible style. Her work incorporates a generous measure from her surroundings and the rich and romantic creative culture of Argentina, more specifically Buenos Aires. Hard work and diligence have clearly paid off as the artist has developed an inquisitive and unique pattern, akin to a newspaper comic strip, that is now immediately recognizable. Fernanda certainly has earned her stripes and a coveted spot in the world of art not only in her hometown but now with international exposure. It’s not a surprise that, as Miami, which is hosting her survey show, has become the third most important urban area for art, after New York and Los Angeles, she has found a very receptive and enthusiastic audience. Her winter exhibition at Manolis Projects promises to deliver an intelligent and compelling argument that Fernanda Lavera’s star is shining brightly, polished with sophistication and highlighted with street smart wit and cleverness. The selected works on view in this beautifully curated exhibition are packed with creative energy, unconventionality and imaginative intellectual twists and turns. As a dedicated painter with an ingeniously coded abstract visual message Fernanda carries a distinguished badge of courage and responsibility as a communicator for social justice as well following an honored tradition of artists who know that “every picture tells a story.”
Bruce Helander is an award-winning artist who writes on art. He has contributed numerous art reviews to The Huffington Post and ARTnews. His most recent books include “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Abrams, Inc.) and “Hunt Slonem – Bunnies.” He is the author of more than twenty books and catalogs on museum shows he has curated. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Art Economist. In 2014 he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and he is a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts. His work is in over fifty permanent museum collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim.
For more information, visit www.manolisprojects.com
335 NE 59th Street
Miami, Florida 33137