Born and raised in San Antonio’s predominantly Tejano Southside, John Guzman experienced the cost and effects of substance abuse, self destruction, and violence. Guzman transforms this reality into highly detailed and thoroughly textured works.
In Flesh and Bone at the Blaffer Art Museum, Guzman synthesizes internal turmoil and the material world of Southside. The social criticism is hinted at but never explicitly present, apart from Ex-convict Suitcase (2019), a depiction of a plastic bag with clothes and a beer can that is inspired by a visit from the artist’s brother, who had recently been released from prison. The artist says that his paintings are always inspired by specific people and their actions. Guzman’s paintings conflate individuals with instruments, making them products of their context, and ultimately become sweaty, coughing cyborgs.
These techno-human hybrids are neither the thinking robots of science fiction nor highly evolved and self-conscious beings of eco-feminist theory in the vein of Donna Haraway. Objects that resemble circular saws, meat grinders, and vacuum cleaners sprout hands, feet, and yellowed teeth in an energetic, if uneasy, combination. Indeed, most of his creations look as if they struggle to exist, their horizons abruptly sequestered by interior walls. The color scheme hints at graffiti, the corner deli, and BBC’s “Robot Wars”: inedible but mesmerizing. This Technicolor claustrophobia is also conditioned by Guzman’s creative circumstances. The earliest work in the show was painted in a small room in San Antonio.
The artist generally picks up where Philip Guston left off. The latter’s mid-seventies paintings often look like minced meat abandoned in the kitchen sink, and some of them are interior scenes with distended body parts (for example, Feet on Rug from 1978 or 1976’s Monument). Guzman comes very close to those paintings in The Wake (2023), a mass of muscle arranged in a wave formation. But instead of Guston’s muted melancholy, Guzman opts for acute angles and forceful diagonals to make every object either move or at least spit out liquids—blood, sweat, and, in the case of Heartburn (2021), thick gray smoke. He’s also more of a graphic artist than Guston, accentuating shapes with black lines and adding inventive details that sometimes serve as a distraction from the intended effect.
Guzman’s printmaking background reveals itself in smaller works from 2020 and 2023. Here, Guzman treats the canvas as a page layout, replacing physical space with planes of active color. Illustration trumps depiction, and Guzman’s hybrid automatons look sleeker here and do not parlay the tension of the bigger pieces, often by virtue of being treated as still lifes, not battle scenes.
This tension subsides differently in work that was produced outside of San Antonio. In paintings made in a New Haven, Connecticut, residency NXTHVN, there is markedly less color and more breathing space. Instead of labored necessity that accompanies need, here, the elements of Guzman’s pictorial language regroup in a spontaneous dance, like cells in a Petri dish. Fingers that were previously attached to machines of unknown origin and purpose, now fly free through monochromatic space and attain the qualities of cuneiform writing.
Hunch (2023) shows a headless figure with protruding ribcage and a shaft of white light coming from the chest. The creature’s paw extends outwards, again, a set of distended teeth. There is a mysterious black triangle in the grayish background, a network of black scribbles, and a feeling of nervous indeterminacy that contrasts with the strident energy of his earlier work. Hunch is also where Guzman arrives at painting the ambiance, not a boxed interior. This work feels like an exciting way forward into the unknown and untested, towards an organic darkness that operates without mechanical parts and electric plugs.