“Dopamine,” César Velez, Oil on Canvas, 24” x 30”, 2022
Habitat Contemporary Gallery is currently featuring solo exhibitions by Harold Smith and César Velez. While each artist has a distinct voice, the exhibitions overlap in their deeply personal narratives. Smith’s “BLACKTACULAR” explores Black masculinity through a series of 14 acrylic on canvas and mixed-media pieces. Velez’s “Movement Through Memory” delves into his experiences as an undocumented childhood arrival, as well as the visceral sensations of heartbreak.
“BLACKTACULAR” fills the Exhibition Entry Gallery with Smith’s signature style of contrasting colors and heavy textures that convey the intricacies of being a Black man in America. According to his artist statement. The “work focuses on the complexity of Black masculinity in America by exploring and expressing the simultaneously complementary and contradictory internal and external narratives that Black men in America must navigate in order to survive and flourish.” Each of his 14 pieces features Black men looking out from the canvas into the eyes of viewers. They are haunting yet beautiful, guarded yet craving connection. None of the figures smiles, nor breaks eye contact. In the mixed media “Royal I,” the subject’s eyes are lined in gold, shining confidently at viewers. His hair is ornately patterned, like wallpaper from a Victorian mansion. Embedded within his neck is a trademarked “Royal” label, giving glimpses of his kingly nature.
Many of the works in “BLACKTACULAR” are layered with words and phrases. “Men of Color 22” repeats the word, “visible,” behind two male figures, though the word is not in fact ever fully visible. The sensation here is that though the men may be visible, there is much below the surface that is not. Smith tells his own story and that of many like him, reframing the fraught mainstream narrative that spins Black men into a monolith. By turning the gaze of his subjects toward the audience in sorrow, strength, seriousness and hope, he broadens the story of what Black masculinity is and can be.
Velez’s “Movement Through Memory” is installed in the Annex Gallery. It has two thematic units, showcased on opposing walls. The first deals with his family and their experience emigrating to the United States from Mexico when Velez was a young child. Each of these pieces is accompanied by an excerpt from Velez detailing his familial connections. His style is bright and authentic, with recurring colors and patterns of sunshine giving the impression of warmth and comfort. Velez’s mother’s smile radiates from under her cowboy hat in “La Ley Del Monte.” “In Another Time” shows a young Velez savoring a sweet as his eyes close in ecstasy. The nostalgia and raw emotion that emanates from these pieces is punctuated by a PBS documentary detailing Velez’s experience as an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient.
The opposing wall is a breathtaking journey through love, heartbreak and recovery with the heart organ as both the literal and metaphorical subject. The pieces are vibrant, realistic down to syrupy blood spurting from a heart torn out. Adding much to the overall effect, Habitat painted the walls to match the colors of each painting so that each piece–each part of the journey–is fully felt. Along a green wall, “Eden” shows a heart growing, flowering, flourishing. In “Catharsis,” along a deep purple wall three panels away, the heart that was once innocent and open to love is being torn apart, viscous blood dripping through fingers.
Both “BLACKTACULAR” and “Movement Through Memory” bare the soul of the artists. The work is personal, layered with emotion, carefully crafted and offered to audiences. Smith’s abstract yet undeniably human pieces draw viewers in and pull them back for another look. There is always more to be seen from a metallic glint in the eye to textured cheekbones and jawlines. Velez’s oil paintings, on the other hand, are lifelike, down to creases around young Velez’s eyes and veins popping from clenched fists. Velez masterfully draws viewers in with the warmth and tenderness of his childhood, barbed with the fears of being undocumented, as well as the widely relatable sensations of a heart as it transforms from whole to broken to repaired.
“Harold Smith: BLACKTACULAR” and “César Velez: Movement Through Memory” continue at Habitat Contemporary Gallery, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through Dec. 15. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Harold Smith and César Velez will give artist talks from 3 to 4 p.m. Dec. 2. For more information, habitatcontemporary.com.