I first met Nery when he was preparing his piece for the Made in LA show last year. He had not one, but two pieces on display at the LA Municipal Art Gallery as part of that exhibition. It’s not everyday that an artist gets the chance to be included in such an important show, and Nery was fortunate enough to be given some prime real estate. His piece Alfombra Domestica lined the entrance to the gallery. We got to talking about his artwork, social work, and ethics in bringing it all together. It’s refreshing to see art with a strong social message that does not come across as preachy and also manages to be visually interesting. So when I heard about his upcoming solo show I knew I wouldn’t want to miss it.
Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich is Nery Lemus’ second solo show at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown. Through the works presented in this exhibition, Nery explores the importance of role-models and father figures in the lives of young males. The theme of the exhibition is made clear with the piece that welcomes us. Across the room from the entrance, piñata letters festively spell out “papi”. My first impression is that it’s cute and nostalgic and that the artist is not afraid to have fun with his work. But the more I look at the piece, the more that a certain sadness sets in. It’s as if there is a voice yearning for “papi”. Somewhere, a small boy is sitting, upset with his father for being absent on his birthday. There is some implied aggression as well, with the violence that would accompany the piñata’s purpose coming to fruition. A father can be a hero, but no heroes are found here.
The word “hero” can be interpreted many ways. Or better said, there are many types of heroes. Nery’s work touches upon hero family members, hero citizens and public servants, and hero pop culture icons. All of these come together in one piece in particular. In one of his tapestries are collaged the the faces of a boy and his heroes. Here we see that heroes come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. From the “Dogfather” of gangster rap (who interestingly enough had a short lived reality TV show subtitled “Father Hood”) to the President of the United States, these men are looked up to for their values and achievements. Heroes don’t come in “one size fits all” packages, and existing in the real world is not a requirement. A young impressionable mind can learn as much from the fictional masked superhero as he can from a professional athlete, or a luchador that sits somewhere in between.
While Nery has a very distinct way in which he approaches his art and addresses the ideas he wants to talk about, he has no single style or medium he works in. However, there are certain strategies that can be seen in many of his works. Much of his work includes text in one way or another. Often times, this can be much to the point as in “Happy Father’s Day, Mom” where the tribute to single mothers is quite clear. It can also be very poetic. In one piece he uses this poetry to actually give us a model for what a hero should be: righteous, sober, an ally of women. The great thing about Nery’s art is that it sits in the context of critical contemporary art, while still being accessible. It is conceptual art that is not caught up in pretentious jargon, but instead seeks to reach a larger audience and uses the appropriate language. This is art that seeks to inspire change, and that is only possible if the audience is willing to listen. If an artist wants his audience to listen, he should speak to them in a way they can understand.
A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich closes March 30th.
Words and images by Noé Gaytán