Plaza de Armas Culture/Features
by SARAH FISCH

03 FEBRUARY 2011

"When I left LA, it was on fire," Ana Fernandez says as we eat sandwiches at the Blue Star Brewery before she heads back to finish last-minute installation details at Joan Grona Gallery. All but one of the paintings in her First Friday show already bear red "sold" dots.

"Driving on I-10, you could see the mountains in the distance, smoke trailing off them. You could see flames."

She laughs out loud at the metaphoric heavy-handedness. "It was just a couple months after an earthquake, and I told [my now-ex-girlfriend], 'Are you sure you don't wanna move to Texas? It's not safe here.'"

Fernandez earned her MFA in painting from UCLA in 2004, but didn't make it back home until September 2009, just after the record-breaking heatwave that exhausted our city. She'd left a city she thought she would die in, she loved it so much: the climate, the diversity, the sense that "I fit right in. When I lived in Venice Beach, I could wear rags and be happy."

After grad school, Fernandez got embroiled in a relationship, and a job with a postage company as a screener of sorts, making sure that when customers designed personalized postage, it didn't contain images of the Unabomber, Monica Lewinsky's infamous dress, or other inappropriateness.

"Mostly I was approving puppies and kittens," she says, "but occasionally there'd be some white guy, and I'd have to research to make sure he wasn't somebody controversial."

Fernandez has a way of unspooling her past with deadpan humor.

She enrolled in UCLA after getting a BFA at the Chicago Art Institute. In Chicago, she recalls, she lived in a neighborhood she didn't know was dangerous, because she moved there in winter and "it wasn't until spring when things started to thaw out that the gang members appeared."

She's passionately opinionated about her work, art in general, her family, her city, social constructs, and her career, but her anecdote delivery borders on tannic dryness. There's the one about Grandmother Fernandez, who gave her a Ouija board despite the strictly anti-occult beliefs of her mom's more religious family. She also gave little Ana an Avon-made, pistol-shaped cologne container she kept between her couch cushions. She had Ana aim it cop-style at the front door to ward off intruders while Grandma visited the store across the street.

"She threw an entire [container] of holy water at her cat, too" Fernandez muses. "She said, 'It wouldn't stop staring at me.' But it was a black cat with two white spots above its eyes ... the holy water got all over the TV, the VCR ... "

Fernandez's dad is an electrical engineer who moved the family from Corpus Christi to San Antonio when Ana was 16; her mother, a pre-K bilingual school teacher, is also a visual artist. The Fernandez family lived with her full-wall mural of a jungle scene, which included "tigers, snakes ... she made the snakes seem biblical, which was ..." she considers a second, "interesting to grow up looking at."

She has loved to draw and paint cars, in particular, since she was 6. They represent identity, aspiration, value, self-expression, "and are individual, almost like people — they have some kind of living energy." The first images she remembers making were of now-vintage 1970s vans with murals on their sides. She can still tell each one of her aunts what kind of car they drove, and when.

She graduated from Roosevelt High School in the Breakfast Club era, and took jobs, mostly on the River Walk, as a waitperson and a San Antonio river barge driver, while studying with the mighty Willome, Pritchett, and Susan Witta-Kemp at San Antonio College, where she now teaches.

And there are traces of Fernandez humor in her meta-realistic, subconscious-infecting paintings. Take her Joan Grona show — you'll see her highly accessible, immediately recognizable portraits of humble, one-story San Antonio bungalows, bedecked with balloons or Christmas lights, with a car or cars, naturally, parked out front. But there are details, such H-E-B shopping bags wrapped around shrubs or the Spurs logo in a window, that act as local in-jokes. One of Fernandez's cars bears the area code 210 in a swirly pink font, and a legend on the side reading "Most Hated." It's based on a real car; Fernandez has seen it around town. She assumed it had a male owner, but then found herself behind it one day at a Whataburger drive-in, and saw a pink-manicured hand emerge from the window.

She tends to photograph specific structures, trucks, and other details and then composite them later into one painting. Each work is realistic but, upon close inspection, loosely painted, with a tricky surface brushstroke she changes to express either solid line or quick motion; in one painting, a canopy of linear winter branches explodes into a furious flap of birds.

She went through a collage period in Los Angeles, during the latter part of her three-year MFA program, splicing together parts of other paintings she made, creating graduated bands of color made of refrigerators, say. She got her first one-woman show as a result but decided, against the advice of some friends, to return to her earlier preoccupations and fully inhabit them. She'd developed a realistic technique back in Chicago, sometimes bordering on photo-reality. She's since abandoned attempts at photorealism because "what's the point, then, of it being a painting? I want people to see the paint, to take in the layers, and the surface," but she knew the subject matter she wanted to focus on. She knew this had to happen in San Antonio.

"In Los Angeles, you'd see a certain landscape that would be interesting to paint, and think 'that looks familiar,' like you'd seen it before. And you had seen it before; it was in movies and on TV."

So call Fernandez's San Antonio paintings a highly personal form of regional landscape, or architectural still life. They document man-made scenarios with human touches all over, but remain strangely uninhabited. With this void, Fernandez effects a couple of things. "When you paint [people], there's always the notion of whether it looks like them, and i don't want to get sucked into that." Also, it heightens the sense of mirroring and the meta-real; Fernandez' scenes "aren't completely realistic. I want them to appear like a hallucination."

One unsettling large-scale painting shows a house shrouded in hedges, with two stone dogs facing each other. "It could be a witches' house," says Fernandez, who counts Goyas' The Flight of the Witches as an inspiration for another painting, in which a gaggle of pointy-hatted piñatas hover above a roof. Another unlit house is framed by a white-and-red balloon heart, which references both San Antonio's exuberant public face, our love for celebration and knack for rasquache decor, and something deeper, darker, and more ambiguous. It's an implied narrative that could be affectionate, or terribly wrong.

"Anybody can gain access to the images," she says. "Somebody will look [at the paintings] only as San Antonio houses, others will read and project much more into them."

Arturo Almeida and UTSA present Ana Fernandez
Opening reception 6-9pm Thu. Feb. 3
Joan Grona Contemporary Art
Through Feb 26