In the space of one exhibition, San Antonio artist Joey Fauerso manages to capture the fragility and resilience of the human body, the totality of American history and mythology, and life on planet Earth, and tie these grand subjects together in a coherent whole.
Titled Teardowns and filling the main gallery of Blue Star Contemporary, the show begins with the notion that while some tearing down is meant to be destructive, other tearings down are means of renewal and further growth.
Impermanence is a main theme of the show, Fauerso said – the idea “that nothing’s fixed. Our own lives aren’t fixed, our histories aren’t fixed, our stories aren’t fixed.”
Neither is the wall-filling mural that forms the centerpiece of the exhibition. Fauerso will paint over it during a Friday evening performance, Dec. 3 from 6 to 9 p.m., as a demonstration of the temporary nature of all things.
The impermanence of life hit hard in 2014 when Fauerso learned she had breast cancer. The diagnosis was sudden, and dire. For two weeks, as she waited for the final test results to arrive, Fauerso was forced to contemplate the end of her life and leaving behind a husband and two young sons. But the test results returned a less serious diagnosis than her doctor initially feared, and the disease was treatable. Fauerso recently passed the five-year survival mark, which she appreciatively says is generally thought of as “real remission.”
Still, the experience transformed her. “Like a lot of people say, it forever changed how I thought about my life,” she said. Though her work was already about society’s regard for the female body, her approach as an artist became more personal, “less focused on speaking to a very specific agenda and more to a broader, more visceral experience.”
That viscerality is evident in Teardowns, with an image of the artist herself crawling off the edge of a platform she uses as a performance stage and setting for sculptures. Her painted images are rendered in a near-sculptural style, with bodies, trees, and landscapes formed from black paint scraped away to reveal the white wall beneath.
One stark image is a floor-to-ceiling stack of countless female bodies, one neatly atop the other. While the image references Fauerso’s method of marking her repeated days of cancer treatment – laying still as radiation penetrated her body – it also recalls the reality that all bodies die, that the lives of ourselves, everyone who came before, and will come after will end. The stack appears as a kind of spine, she said, each body an anonymous vertebral link in the chain of life.
Fauerso’s early experiences growing up in a Transcendental Meditation (TM) community in Iowa, and the recent funeral of TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, speak to recognition of such impermanence as a form of transcending the limits of body, space, and time.
Her TM community years were formative in other ways evident in the exhibition, as well. The Maharishi School in Fairfield, Iowa had a community theater, and she became a set painter. She learned to work quickly and at theatrical scale, which now translates to her penchant for large-size paintings and wall murals.
Working at such a scale is “almost athletic,” she said, and “performative in the sense that it either works or it doesn’t, and you can’t go back and fix it” because the paint dries quickly. “It’s a one-shot deal.”
The theatrical reference also represents another kind of teardown, which is the term for what happens when a stage play is over. The set is torn down, and the stage is cleared to make way for another production, which serves as another metaphor for the impermanence of life. For Fauerso, the metaphor also recalls how our own personal histories, and the history of society around us, is continually transformed from reality to myth and back again.
Her massive Teardowns wall painting is based on a classic French wallpaper mural made by the Zuber factory in 1834, titled Views of North America. The 32-panel mural, totaling 50 feet in length, depicts a panoramic, idealized view of the fledgling United States, ignoring the brutal realities of slavery and destruction of Native American communities. Still, it became a paragon of American virtue when Jacqueline Kennedy chose the wallpaper to decorate the White House diplomatic reception room, where it remains today.
The diplomatic situations during the Kennedys’ “Camelot” era and during the current administration “speak to mythologizing our American stories in different ways that are problematic,” Fauerso said.
Lastly, the theme of impermanence is a reflection on Teardowns itself, which will be torn down after its Jan. 5 closing date to make way for future exhibitions. During the run of the show, Fauerso has made intermittent additions to her mural, a form of commentary on the changing nature of histories, both personal and societal.
The mural’s final transformation will occur during Fauerso’s Friday performance, when the entire painting will be blacked out but for a few “windows” showing her intermittent additions, she said. Artist Laeree Lara will join for a fifth performance in an ongoing collaboration during the show, but this final performance will also see two new collaborators: Fauerso’s young sons Brendan and Paul, ages 8 and 10.
“They’re going to be doing an epic Lego-build” on stage with the many sculptural objects Fauerso has placed throughout the exhibition, including in a video wherein they are built up and knocked down by actors.
Since her cancer diagnosis, Fauerso said the personal turn in her work is due in part to how her sons have reacted and adjusted. She has a keener awareness of what is happening in her home, she said, and how to draw from it artistically.
A project currently on display at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, carries a title derived from something Paul once said to Brendan: “You destroy every special thing I make.” The phrase was uttered just after the November 2016 presidential election, and Fauerso related it to her own feelings on the state of American democracy.
Once she related that political situation to her own personal experience, and to the message of another Maharishi devotee that “All Things Must Pass,” Teardowns became a natural evolution. “I think in terms of how the ideas weave together, that it’s more complicated and messy, in a way that reflects how life really is. … It’s not a clean thesis that’s then expressed.”
Teardowns is on display at Blue Star Contemporary through Jan. 5. Information on hours and admission is available here. Fauerso and Lara’s Friday evening performance is free and open to the public.