By Luke Quinton
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Special to the American-Statesman

Ana Fernandez has a thing for investigating houses. Specifically, she has a thing for visiting the homes where murders had taken place: the house (surprisingly small) where O.J. Simpson's ex-wife was killed, the Manson house (where construction workers let her roam the grounds) and lesser-known homes whose stories caught her interest.

But Fernandez isn't a private investigator; she's an artist. There was something about seeing a house in person that gave her a truer idea of the place.

When she moved back to San Antonio after nine years in California, the front yards of Texas became her muse again, the way you could guess at a home's interiors by carefully documenting the decorations in the yard and the cars in the driveway.

"It's as if what's inside is coming outside," Fernandez says from San Antonio.

Her investigations do attract some attention, though. One man pulled up to see Fernandez framing his house in a photograph with some balloons.

"I got three balloons at a florist's and was driving around and found the house that had the exact type of light that I needed," Fernandez says.

"I'm an artist," she told the man.

The result of that streetside balloon study is a gorgeous and eerie painting that dominates a wall at Fernandez's new solo show at Women and Their Work.

Fernandez doesn't paint the yards exactly as she sees them — it's how she imagines them. From the light of those three balloons she painted one of those truck-sized balloon hearts. Its red and white balloons glow in exquisitely rendered light, left out to glow in the dark, long after the party's over.

"That painting in particular was about a relationship I had had. The house kind of symbolized it a little bit," Fernandez says. "It's kind of like a mirage."

Houses hold some of our strongest memories. We all know people who seem to form an almost symbiotic relationship with the home they've made.

"We were always moving around a lot as a kid. The only places that remained constant were our grandmothers' houses," Fernandez says.

"Maybe that's why I'm so obsessed with houses."

She grew up in Corpus Christi, and now, cruising through the San Antonio neighborhoods inside Loop 410, the homes she paints often remind her of her grandmothers' homes.

The first one that became a painting was "210," a painting of a bungalow and a car that, she says, "Kind of summed up San Antonio, rolled it up all into one." The car has the San Antonio area code (210) stickered on the back, and the words "Most Hated" in big cursive letters on the side.

The car really exists. After she'd painted it, Fernandez saw its owner, reaching for food at a What-a-Burger drive-through with "this manicured hand that had pink painted fingernails."

"I guess the car is so cool people hate on it," Fernandez muses with a laugh.

A house isn't just a house. Paint choices, flags in the window, slogans on the car, the look of dogs, the plants, statues and recycling bins, they all contribute, Fernandez says. "The soul of the house radiates out there and manifests itself in decorations."

This isn't documentary work, though. Many different elements become one composite of the house, with Fernandez's own penchant for evoking mystery.

And you won't find the owners of these homes. "I see the houses as portraits," she says. "Painting the people is a distraction."

"I kind of see (the houses) as a cinematic scene. I want the car to be the protagonist; I want the piñata to be the protagonist."

And that's exactly what happens. Two piñatas, a snowflake and a ghost, float ominously over one house. There is a yellow ribbon in the foreground that says "Crime Scene." Most houses are decorated with Christmas lights, which light up the eaves year-round.

They're subtly surreal. One home's lawn mirrors itself: two white cars, two dog statues, two oleanders.

In Texas, our vehicles are also a vehicle for culture, literally.

Fernandez operates a food truck on Alamo Street in the grand tradition of San Antonio's Chili Queens, a job that came to her after she lost her job as a riverboat tour guide. ("I had a little fender bender on the boat," she says.)

In her painting, there's a bit of Goya and a little David Hockney, but more importantly, there's a fresh look at Texas' front doors, and the mystery of what's behind them.

'Ana Fernandez: Real Estates and Other Fictions'

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays through June 21

Where: Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca St.

Cost: Free

Info: 477-1064, www.womenandtheirwork.org

http://www.austin360.com/arts/in-eerie-paintings-by-ana-fernandez-a-house-2371687.html