Around the time Francisco Guerrero moved from Ithaca to teach at Seattle University, in 2002, the ladies he painted were camouflaged in monochrome: pale, pale pink on fields of more pink. Not nudes, exactly—these figures are the mere suggestions of women, whose abstracted parts are barely discernible in the haze. Like a coy rejoinder to John Berger's adage "men act, women appear" ("viewers squint, women elude"?), the image is far more stubborn and resistant than the cotton-candy paint would suggest. The approach has its difficulties ("I couldn't really see what I was doing when I painted these," Guerrero tells me), but it is a remarkably effective device for manufacturing desire. You want to see the bodies, so in a sense you want the bodies. You must will the nude into being; it will not appear unbidden.
This is very much not the case in Guerrero's provocative new paintings—glossy, small, explicit—which composed his Los Angeles debut at the Happy Lion Gallery this spring. These women appear. They more than appear. They beg, solicit, accuse, seduce. Their 10-by-8-inch canvases echo the pages of Maxim, where Guerrero finds many of the images; he also sifts through internet pornography and has hired prostitutes for photo shoots. Even the vixens he dug up from older material, like an April 1961 issue of Ace: The Magazine for Men of Distinction, wear the lush smirks and grim preoccupations of their younger heirs. All the women are already for sale when Guerrero gets to them.
In paintings like YFront, from the 2006 series that was shown in L.A., a girl stares out at the viewer. Her come-hither expression, her angular face, that ridiculous mane of hair, the way she's yanking at her underwear—all of these things instantly mark her as the kind of advertiser-friendly image that sells magazines. The title is a frank acknowledgment that this class of pictures is about fashion, and only incidentally about the interchangeable bodies that model the clothes. In fact, as Guerrero paints her, the girl's gorgeous figure is almost insubstantial. The shaded crook of her arm, the paint that traces her biceps and torqued stomach muscles—these spaces are blocked out in the same steel blue of the background. If you focus on the play of color across the shiny surface, in other words, bits of her flesh turn transparent, melting into the arctic sky behind her. Other commercialized images incorporate products and food—one outright funny painting is called Eggs Benedict; in Eating Blue Popsicle, the teal stain of the icy treat is repeated in the woman's aggressive stare. (The only painting hung in Seattle right now is the coital oblivion of the portrait Mouse, made for an exhibition at Seattle University's Lee Center, but gallerists are sniffing around.)
Guerrero has a pragmatic explanation ready for these newly overdetermined paintings: The pink ladies don't show up in the slides that Guerrero, marooned in the Northwest, has to send to New York and L.A. galleries. ("Like everyone else," he says, "I'm trying to figure out whether Seattle is a real art world.")
But that hardly seems to explain his embarking on a whole different project. Pop painting inured us to the jarring experience of seeing paintings at once so blatantly commercial and so technical, carrying forward a tradition of commenting on the link between women's bodies and commerce that goes back at least to Manet. It's hard to say, precisely, what Guerrero is trying to do with these paintings. The female nude is, of course, "an art-historical jumping-off point—or entry point, pardon the pun," Guerrero says, grinning. At the same time, he contrasts his work with that of figurative painters like John Currin, who has also used '60s girlie magazines as source material, but whose art-history references overlay even his most sexualized images. "I wouldn't say my work is about art history," Guerrero cautions. He is willing to concede links to Jeff Koons and the pulpy Americana of Richard Prince.
Guerrero says he's "dumbfounded" that nobody asks him about the objectification of women in his paintings anymore. (He admits that the bondage themes in his new series are almost a response to that silence, a way of testing boundaries.) His paintings are not purely ironic quotations of their source material. But a visitor to an art gallery today can't help but assume that the paintings are about the very thing you fear they're doing—presenting women as delectable little things you can buy, and put in a bag, and take home. Guerrero brokers "that sort of intimacy between the viewer and the sitter," he explains. "That's the commodity." It's a fine distinction, but in the best of the paintings, there's a hard quality to the women's gaze that makes you feel like you will never own whatever it is they're selling. And buying paintings is always about the desire for objects that are at a certain level unyielding—we might at least be honest with ourselves.