COLUMN: A Studio Visit

Photo courtesy of Xavier McFarlin. Xavier McFarlin in his studio.

A Studio Visit with Xavier McFarlin

The long, low adobe building with three front doors facing Kelly Street is ever transformed since I walked through the middle door and into the studio of Xavier McFarlin. It’s a square space, taller than wide, with roughly plastered walls painted the palest of pink, and a wooden lath ceiling. I felt like I had walked into an old box full of strange and enchanted objects. A clump of nails rusted together into a spiky ore was part of a still life of Marfa findings cluttered on a table. From the local dump, the source of many magical and useful things, came a cat scratcher in the form of a cartoon cactus, planted in the corner. Wigs of unnatural colors and textures sprouted from the wall like anemones. A blond one draped atop a microphone stand — giving a figurative presence to the room — had been dyed with concentric red circles. “A target,” McFarlin identified, obliquely conjuring: the logo of a big box store, a current retrospective of the great painter of everyday images Jasper Johns, and a bullseye. The studio was alive with connections to worlds beyond.

As glossy as a screen on the crumbly studio wall, a large digital print introduced another presence to the room. A queer personage with cobalt-blue skin looked intently out from under a black baseball hat. A pair of pig tails, growing like horns, and trails of vape smoke, blowing like steam from their nostrils, gave this being, stolidly packed into a pearlescent minidress, volcanic force. In the picture, they sat perched within a gleaming office environment, with banks of computer screens on workstations leading the eye into an infinite hyperreality. A key progenitor of McFarlin’s art, the computer is both a source and a tool for his form of picture-making. “Scenes” is how he refers to his images, and, to some degree, McFarlin’s studio serves as a sort of prop shop for building characters and the situations they inhabit.

Interestingly, at the studio there was no computer in sight. Though there was a kid’s 4-wheeler ATV and a Bionic Face Shield, both of which McFarlin had adapted for a body of work currently on view in the Texas Biennial, which Ballroom Marfa curator Daisy Nam and I recently traveled to see. The ATV makes its appearance in what, at first, looks like a terrible accident out on River Road, but on closer inspection turns out to be more of a love scene between a femme character with tomato-red skin (Unit 4) and the ATV, decoratively painted plaid. The shield shows up transformed into a mask with an ape-like snout and bared teeth; the artist’s mother, who is a dental technician, instructed on the denture work. The mask is worn by “The Guardian,” whose boots I noticed standing nearby in the studio. Indeed, it was one of a number of pairs of old cowboy boots painted flat white, such as McFarlin often wears about town. “I loved cartoons as a child, so decided why not become one?” he states. Given “the scene” that is everyday Marfa, Texas, McFarlin imagines casting the town as a more functional, less dystopian Westworld — after the TV series based on a Wild West theme park of the future — in which everyone is role-playing, but where no cyborgs are harmed. “I make my work for people like myself, queer POC,” says McFarlin, who considers his own role an avatar of diversity within the community.

Cindy Sherman is an artist McFarlin admires, in part for her production of images that are as theatrical as film stills. He thanked Eugene Binder for lending his gallery space for McFarlin to stage, light and create the photography for his recent work. What may be more significant, however, is Sherman’s ability to turn stereotypes and caricatures that are projected onto her as a woman into nearly talismanic works of art. In Sanskrit, “vishnu” means black or “as dark as a cloud.” So why does the Hindu deity appear to take human form in so many shades of blue? Perceived in terms of all that is attractive, Vishnu assumes the symbolic hue of the infinite and immeasurable. So do the people of color in McFarlin’s art appear to hold powerful agency over how they are seen.

There were two other bodies of work underway in the studio: a trippy painting of the party nightlife that inspires McFarlin and a pair of large-scale works. These hung like the barriers they depicted: chain link fencing blown open at the center, like exploded blossoms.

Xavier McFarlin’s work in the 2021 Texas Biennial, A New Landscape, A Possible Horizon, curated by Ryan N. Dennis and Evan Garza, is on view at the McNay in San Antonio through January 9, 2022. His work can also be seen at xaviermcfarlin.com

Ingrid Schaffner is a writer and the curator at Chinati Foundation.


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