Joy Wai Gallery’s latest exhibition of Pepe Vives New Paintings continues to address the theme of communicative self-expression that began in the gallery’s previous showcase of Carmina Figurata, in this instance shifting from a sense of otherness in travel to one in religion. Vives transitioned to his current career in portraiture from his initial Jesuit education in Valencia, Spain, as is evidenced in the positioning of the exclusively male subjects staged in Christ-like gestures. The show opened July 5th, and will be on view through August 10th.

The Pepe Vives exhibition provides a striking aesthetic contrast to the previous exhibition. Dark walls have been replaced by the white cube gallery presentation, and the delving, unexpected images in Saana Wang’s photography are now replaced by the metaphorically probing albeit technically cohesive religious portraiture. Although the works have trademark characteristics unique to the artist — similar rippling effects, facial features and positions — there is much room for questioning in terms of both history and abstract metaphor.

New gallery director Cole Harrell intentionally overhauled the exhibition space to suit the religious work. Harrell had many of the portraits (the most striking of which are photographs soaked in varnish on tracing paper) set in frames, backed wooden paintings so they popped against the wall, and reconceptualized the space’s surfaces and pillars in black and white to consciously mimic a church space. A central piece, Untitled #11, a long graying gradient portrait reminiscent of Jesus lying in the cave before his Resurrection, is set parallel on a large wall facing three smaller faces, fashioned as a pew. The result is a clean, arid space, that does successfully allow for artistic and even spiritual deliberation.
The clear religious iconography in the works, all made this year, is enhanced by a comparably intended sense of mystery: while the Christian messages are clear-cut, the real histories of people in the portraits and the artist himself are both undefined. There are allusions to broken relationships in context, most notably in the musing press release by art critic and curator David Rimanelli. Rimanelli interjects ‘Jesus Christ’ and expletives between tales of love and family, as introduced by a French quote from the opera Carmen, translated in English as ‘love is a rebellious bird.’ However, the artist and the messages within the works themselves are both relatively taciturn. The aesthetic is also reticent, with literally vague colors fading slowly as blurring shapes sink into the crumpling tracing paper, thus leaving room for personal as well as linear interpretation.

Despite the intrigue associated with mysterious writings and shadowy figures on display, there is a level of curiosity that almost feels lacking. Who exactly are the figures in the portraits? What prompted Pepe Vives to leave the Catholic church? How dominant, or accurate, is a homosexual reading of the work? What made David Rimanelli so passionate about writing the introduction? Why are the artist and the work both so laconic?

The lack of personal information in lieu of religious feeling allows the viewer to impart one’s own sense of humanity, nonsecular or otherwise. Cole Harrell pontificated on the challenges of questioning, “Where do you fit, and how we can pull the humanity out of the divine of the sacred. In terms of religion we need the human element, and we need to feel connected: Buddhists to Buddha, Christians to Jesus; we need to feel a part of it all.”

The emotive capability of Vives’ religious iconography is evidenced in his depictions of the Ecce Homo as styled from the Shroud of Turin in Untitled #12 (scenes of the life, flagellation, and mocking of Christ, found in Turin, Italy, believed to be from the trecento) as well as the agonizing man in Untitled #6. The latter work was painted on wood, and the grains of the surface complement the pained expression of the figure. The tension and agony are literally tactile in the effort to reach out to the viewer. Pepe Vives left Jesuit Valencia in 1984 for the East Village, and still lives and paints in the Lower East Side today. His background as a painter of oil on canvas has lately given way to painted-on photography, as evidenced in the current exhibition. Outside of a variety of New York galleries, his work has been shown in Provincetown, Miami and Milan. Gallery director Cole Harrell, 23, has worked in both African art and private contemporary advisory. This is Harrell’s first curation at Joy Wai Gallery.

Pepe Vives: New Paintings will be on view until August 10, 2012.

Joy Wai Gallery
122 W 18th Street
(646) 688-3155