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Ernesto Renda, "The Moment of Truth"

by David S. Rubin


Moskowitz Bayse, Los Angeles, California
Exhibition continuing through May 11, 2024
April 13, 2024

Ernesto Renda, “MSM,” 2024, hot glue, wax pastel, and bleached black canvas on wood panel, 40 x 72 x 1 3/4”.
All images courtesy of Moskowitz Bayse, Los Angeles

A former student of media theory, Ernesto Renda is interested in interrelationships between film and painting. Influenced by the kind of transitional moments common in cinematography, where one scene transparently overlaps and dissolves into another, Renda developed an idiosyncratic process and style that allows him to simulate this effect in paintings where multiple narratives simultaneously coexist. In this exhibition, titled “The Moment of Truth,” most of his images are of truth tellers from backlit, voice-distorted interviews who must conceal their identities for fear of being exposed or harmed.

Ernesto Renda, “Prisoners,” 2024, hot glue, wax pastel, and bleached black canvas on wood panel, 36 x 48 x 1 3/4”

Renda begins a work by preparing what he terms the “underimage,” a network of linear striations that stand out in relief, having been applied to a wood panel using a glue gun, which he also employs to make tiny little three-dimensional figures of “actors.”  Stage two involves preparing a black canvas, adorning it with round vignettes of performers moving about freely in golden light. These are created by spraying bleach over stencils made from tracing shadows cast by the sculptural figurines. Finally, he stretches the canvas over the underimage and draws the figurative “overimage” on the surface using wax pastel, a frottage technique first adopted by the Surrealists by placing something under a canvas and rubbing over it with a drawing or painting medium to create unusual textures.

“MSM,” the initial painting of the series, evolved out of Renda’s ongoing investigations of media representations of LGBTQ+ people. The title, an acronym coined by epidemiologists studying AIDS in the 1990s, refers to “men who have sex with men” regardless of sexual identity. The imagery is based on “The Homosexuals,” a 1967 episode of the TV series “CBS Reports,” where the interviewees’ faces were obscured in darkness. The artist also draws on more recent news coverage of unidentified gay men in Chechnya. 

Ernesto Renda, “Personae,” 2024, hot glue, wax pastel, and bleached black canvas on wood panel, 48 x 108 x 1 3/4”

Working within his three-layer construct, Renda presents a densely compacted intermingling of dissonant information, what we might call “a painting in three acts.” The linear matrix of the underimage is made more complex through the overdrawing of horizontal registers that refer to the electronic tracking lines seen on a television or video monitor. The brooding and mysterious tone of the scenes of gay men in the shadows of the mid-section is dramatically countered by the luminous spotlighting of the shadow figures who dance over them like marionettes in a puppet theater. Renda considers them to be personifications of the distractions that today interrupt our viewing of time-based media, such as commercials or pop-up spam. Yet, when considered within the context of the painting’s subject, they could also represent the struggle to break free from the closet. Particularly striking here is the central focus on the seated figure’s relaxed hand, for it conjures up memories of the once common slur that labeled gay men “limp wristed.”

In subsequent paintings, Renda moved away from gay-themed content to focus simply on the variety of individuals who have been interviewed in the shadows. In “Reactionaries,” the figures’ faces begin to emerge in soft lighting, with the two most visible shown wearing glasses, symbolic reminders that they have witnessed something of consequence. “Prisoners,” by contrast, has an emotional potency that stems from the immersion of silhouetted prison bars within the amalgam of faces, some hidden and others faintly visible. As the series evolved, Renda also expanded his options for sourcing imagery, turning to stock images found on the internet and compositions created by artificial intelligence (AI) using text prompts.

Ernesto Renda, “Personae,” 2024 (detail), hot glue, wax pastel, and bleached black canvas on wood panel, 48 x 108 x 1 3/4”

One of the most memorable works in the exhibition beautifully articulates the Shakespearean notion that “all the world’s a stage,” while suggesting that news coverage is itself a form of living theater in which all the participants are actors. With “Personae,” Renda shows us four different sets of performers: faces with eyes staring towards us in the background, six figures shown totally in shadow in the middle zone, the familiar spotlit shadow dancers in the lower foreground, and, perched along upper edge the top of the painting itself, a frieze-like positioning of the tiny figurines, all proudly lined up as if for their curtain call. 

David S. Rubin is a Los Angeles-based curator, writer, and artist. As a curator, he has held positions at MOCA Cleveland, Phoenix Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, and San Antonio Museum of Art. As a writer he has contributed to Art and Cake, Art in America, Arts Magazine, Artweek, ArtScene, Artillery, Fabrik, Glasstire, Hyperallergic, and Visual Art Source. He has published numerous exhibition catalogs, and his curatorial archives are housed in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
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