In his new solo show, “Death of a Hero, Rise of a Champion,” which opened last week at Deli Gallery in East Williamsburg, Ricardo Partida unleashes what he calls his “f–g fatale” onto the trope of the straight male athlete—another step in his journey toward unwinding heteronormative power structures and ultimately, he says, “bringing the world to its knees.”

The figures Partida depicts in his compositions are “avatars” derived from his own experiences as well as cultural reference points like Only Fans, social media, and video games. The figures use sexuality—what Partida describes as “surrogacies of seduction”—to question traditional ideas about gender, bodies, and queerness.

Many of the figures in the nine paintings up at Deli have faces similar to Partida’s own. However, Partida says the works are not self-portraits, rather that the figures are “costumes” and “characters” onto which he projects parts of himself.

“I have a lot of references and reference my own anatomy as well,” Partida said, when we spoke via FaceTime a few days before the show. “Who are you more familiar with seeing than yourself?”

Partida’s use of the serpentine line is especially evident in “At My Beck and Call,” which recalls the French neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

One influence Partida cites is the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who, Partida says, used a “serpentine line” to represent male figures more sensually and erotically than the hard-edged male figures in style at the time. This created an “other,” not quite male or female, according to Partida, who says he is not rediscovering this “other” but giving it fresh context.

Partida’s use of the serpentine line is especially evident in “At My Beck and Call,” a painting that shows a figure lounging next to the sea, facing away from the viewer but with its face caught in a mirror and thrown back to us. The flowy line appears in the outline of the figure—similar to how it was used by Ingres in his 1808 painting “Vénus Anadyomène” —but also is expressed in individual brushstrokes, which add motion to the skin and draw your gaze around the composition. 

Each of Partida’s pieces has a distinct palette. One of the most interesting arrays of colors shows up in “Melting into the Night,” which includes three figures, one of whom lets a slash of light pierce a thin space between their arm and back. This light catches another of the figures’ faces, a beam of yellow slicing through a composition dominated by greens, blues, and dark purples.

Partida has a background in jazz dance and an interest in performance art, both of which are evident in how he handles motion. The left arm of the figure in “At My Beck and Call,” for instance, flows out over the horizon, seeming to flutter.

In “Juggernaut (All Things Through Him),” a figure in a cropped top and unbuttoned pants holds a football and raises a hand in a big thumbs down. The belly, the thigh, the face, and the fingers: each part works with and against the rest of the composition to build real tension. 

A piece completed during a residency at the Ox-Bow School of Art in Michigan, “A Dream of Ganymede,” depicts what Partida calls a “red angel devil.”

“Every time I place bodies on the composition I think of an incredible shift in weight that happens,” said Partida. “I think of intent, anticipation, and the way that we build attention with movement and proximity. That happens a lot in performance.”

Walking around Partida’s paintings, I’m struck with how much work the gaze of each figure is doing. The expression on each face is a strange mixture of desire and hostility, which Partida says is a reflection of his experience navigating hetero spaces as a gay man.

“We’re all familiar with being alone on the train and trying to look mean, to look like an unpleasant person for that second, just to be left alone,” said Partida. “I think a lot about the way my gaze informs me in moments of seduction, moments of desire, but also moments of danger.”

Partida describes his work as a “melting pot” of influences, but he thinks of his career so far as having three main stages. The first was in South Texas, prior to grad school, when he joined a community of sex workers and began to paint the bodies around him. Then he moved, to study painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and found inspiration in the local nightlife, especially the idea of people embodying whatever costume they wanted for a night and returning to normal the next day.

Next, Partida attended a residency at the Ox-Bow School of Art in Michigan, after his first year of grad school. When he returned, he finished a figure he had started before leaving. That piece, “A Dream of Ganymede,” depicts what Partida calls a “red angel devil” and marked the start of the third part of Partida’s career: using queer mythological figures to challenge traditional narratives, such as that of the hero.

“Death of a Hero, Rise of a Champion” will be on view at Deli Gallery through June 20, 2021. Partida also has work on display at NADA House 2021, a group show on Governors Island that will run until August 1, 2021.

Top photo credit: “Juggernaut (All Things Through Him)” by Ricardo Partida.

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