Bill Dambrova and Fausto Fernandez

Bill Dambrova and Fausto Fernandez: Painting between the Confluence of Culture and Cosmogenesis.

There are great pairings in the history of art, like Picasso and Matisse during modernism, or Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns during postmodernism, but the pair of artists put together by curator Wendy Raisanen are a unique part of Phoenix’s story as an art town that is finally coming of age. The serendipitous friendship of Bill Dambrova and Fausto Fernandez began sometime around 2001, a year that heralded a new vision of the future by directors like Stanley Kubrick, but which felt more like Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream by the time it actually arrived. Millennial concerns like Y2K had passed, and our technology hadn’t crashed due to an undetected programming error, but that didn’t mean 9/11 wasn’t just around the corner. A second Bush was elected to the office of the president, followed by a second Iraq War, and the war on drugs was soon to be replaced by the war on terror. And yet, all of this is just the opening salvo in a story about culture and commitment in work of Dambrova and Fernandez who had completed their student years, drawing together the artistic firmament needed to dive headlong into a turbulent tailwinds of the new century, just beginning.

Beyond the collision of these big picture issues with having chosen a life in the arts, this recursive look back on the development and decisions of two of the town’s most well-known artists starts with the Fin de Siècle in Phoenix, which also brought many more challenges and changes than either artist could have ever anticipated. Interest in the Scottsdale art scene had begun to wane, giving rise a new energy in heart of downtown, which experienced the birth of Roosevelt Row and the growth of the Grand Ave arts community — not to mention the proliferation of many outlier scenes — all of which all played a very real part in transforming the cultural climate of the town. In a very real sense, the fifth largest city in the U.S. had begun its rise on the cultural radar once again, while having produced blimps and pings of real interest from the artworld at large in decades prior. Now the artworld of downtown was becoming something of a destination that was noted as being the largest artwork in the nation.

Near the very center of growth and interest in these new institutions, Dambrova had found a place for himself as an exhibition designer for the Heard Museum on Central, not far from the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM). While PAM would undergo its own tumultuous changes in the years and decades ahead, the Heard was already considered to be one of the more progressive museums in Arizona at that time, serving the interests of the indigenous community and importing select exhibitions that were part of an evolving conversation about the value of culture, tradition and heritage. It was here that Dambrova first met and ended up hiring Fernandez for his keen eye as an exhibition specialist after an impromptu portfolio review. Together, they helped contribute to the look and vision of the Heard as an institution with a growing influence in the region.

Over the course of the next decade, both artists would move jobs, jumping in and out of L.A. during different periods, not only to learn more about museum design, the politics of the artworld, and to understand how Los Angeles had positioned itself to become a burgeoning art capital that was just as influential as New York City, but to commune with the vast flows of information and energy that cosmopolitan life brought to their work. Both would leave the cosmological influence of the desert, with its epic starry nights and rugged hiking trails for the concrete jungle of the cosmopolis. And yet, each remain connected to both places, even in the midst of episodic and inerrant instances of individual wanderlust.

This procession of going back and forth between AZ and Cali began shortly after both artists had established studios at The Lodge in Arizona, a space still know for showing some of the best contemporary art in the state today. It was here that Dambrova and Fernandez exerted a formative influence on one other, often discussing art at the corner bar with other notable figures from the Grand Ave scene well into the night. Even after having cultivated a presence for his work in the city, Dambrova was the first of the two to take a leap of faith and move to California, departing for L.A. around 2003. He quickly picked up gigs working for the J. Paul Getty Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History too. This was no small feat in a highly competitive market, and it allowed him the opportunity to live and create work in California for the better part of a decade. The rather marked contrast with the Arizona art scene was a part of the journey that enriched Dambrova’s art practice and his ideas about what really mattered in the world of contemporary art.

Shortly after Dambrova moved to L.A., Fernandez took up a stint designing exhibitions at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), which provided him with an impeccable education about the status of “the contemporary” that was not unlike what Dambrova was encountering in L.A. In this way, both artists were able to keep each other appraised of developments in their home towns as well as the trends that were garnering attention in even bigger institutions. In the meantime, both Dambrova and Fernandez continued to challenge themselves in the studio, measuring their own work against many of the leading figures and ideas in of the times. And both kept in dialogue, occasionally visiting each other, sharing images, and undergoing a deep process of personal maturation. 

As the second decade of the new century opened, the situation reversed itself, with Fernandez leaving to spend a handful of years in Southern California where he garnered a few major commissions, participated in landmark exhibitions, and met some of the biggest names in the town. Conversely, Dambrova had just moved from Venice Beach back to the desert, and he even had a short-lived stint on a desert ranch before returning to Phoenix proper. It was an invitation to have a solo exhibition at Eye Lounge that helped to reestablished his connection with the Arizona art community, even though he wasn’t a member of the collective at the time. Meanwhile, Fernandez found himself meeting new communities too as he bounced around to artspaces like the Border Art Residency in La Union, New Mexico, and the Martin and Lorraine Kaminsky Residency in Miami, Florida.

Having known each other this long, both Dambrova and Fausto had witnessed the massive expansion in art fairs, the growing influx of national and international art into Arizona, and they had both had the opportunity to work at nearly every level of exhibition design, lead museum workshops, and even accrue some retreat and residency experiences — both personal and professional — all of which continued to contributed to their ongoing dialogue about what it meant to make art in the early twenty-first century.

Both artists were finally back in Arizona at the same time by 2020. More than two decades had passed since Dambrova completed his degree at Arizona State University and Fernandez had graduated from the University of Texas in El Paseo. Individually, they had transversed a greater portion of the west and southwest art circuit than most of their contemporaries, with Fernandez maintaining deep roots Mexico, where he grew up in Chihuahua.

Today, both of their recent projects at the Phoenix airport have forever made their respective aesthetics part of the culturally landscape that welcomes visitors to the state. What is important about their travels however, not to mention how many times they’ve crisscrossed similar communities, galleries and institutions, is that this kind of journey has become a common feature of an increasingly nomadic class of cultural creatives that have lived in Arizona at one time or another. Our state, our art scene, and artists like Dambrova and Fernandez are producing some of the most radical forms of contemporary painting today because they are wanders, syncretists, and post-regionalists.

But what does post-regionalist mean in this instance? It certainly has something to do with coming up in a geographic region whose sensibility has moved from being visibly metropolitan to thoughtfully cosmopolitan. It also has something to do with the singular journey of each of these artists — both in terms of living in many different places — but also in adopting a global mindset that goes with being able to access a world of imagery online, and in real-time, that just wasn’t possible for any generation prior. As for what is specific to Dambrova and Fernandez’s particular set of stories and experiences, it would have to be the fact that both artists have lived lives immersed in different institutions — often the very best of their kind — and worked with directors, curators, artists, designers, preparators, etc., examining every aspect of how the creation, display and circulation of art throughout the world creates new forms of meaning, as well as original meaning-making systems. Over time, this resulted in an aesthetics of interplay and exchange, interaction and interactivity, compositional point and dialogic counter-point, that each artist has taken in their own direction by combining disparate knowledges with the greater concerns of cultural production from both here and abroad, ultimately creating their own unique forms of artistic address in a painterly refrain. 

Coming out this cultural milieu, it is no surprise that both Dambrova and Fernandez are cartographic and diagrammatic thinkers; that both have adopted systems-based aesthetics that embrace chaos and complexity in equal measure; and that questions of hybridity, intentionality and creativity as-a-process are foregrounded in both of their oeuvres. To encounter either of their aesthetics is to see through the many veiled systems of meaning that can act as the connective tissue that exists between world and self, affect and inscription, text and the near endless proliferation of subtexts that exists whenever you find yourself moving from any one experience, region or perspective into new and unfamiliar territory. And make no mistake, the question of colliding perspectives is central to everything that is under discussion here because both have adopted post-cartesian outlooks about how they treat the picture plane. This is reflected in the many ways that both artists tend to adopt as broad a view of the intimations of interdependence as is possible to represent on any one canvas, even while what is pictured, tends to exist as a delimited object, bounded by variations on pictorial genus, given over to us as instant of desert inspired genius.

In relation to this specific exhibition, and their interview with the curator of exhibitions and collections for Scottsdale Public Art, Wendy Raisanen, both artists have spoken about working at the limits of the known; of accepting uncontrolled instances of automatism as a means of introducing unconscious interventions into their own working process; and of the drive to push past staid expectations in the unfolding of their work in an effort to touch on the ineffable. That is why so many layers of pentimenti — both synthetic and painterly — appear built up across the surfaces of each of their given substrates in this show. Any and every object can enter into their pictorial constructs if it has a catalytic effect, or if it initiates a series of productive counter-measures, corrections and even contrarian musings. Thus, collage and bricolage are never really absent from their process even when everything is just painting — rather, these strategies are distributed in radically different proportions throughout any given body of work functioning as so many dictums and decisions to be confronted until a solution or proper degree of resolve emerges.

Another aspect that ties their different bodies of work together is that both address ideas about the body too, although it rarely appears in any conventionally painted manner. Of course, for Fernandez, it is the body of culture that is his main subject. Treated sometimes with a neo-baroque pallet of daring flourishes that range from golden gestural excesses to the explosions of raw gun power; or operating through a modality of making that subsumes varied systems of iconography through a process of anthropophagy; or even working in a more relational modality that trades on sampling and remixing post-production interventions in the history of art through the use of found imagery, in effect, producing a recombinant aesthetic that emerges from the super-imposition of inter-spliced images which form a new organic whole. Of course, this is not the organic unity of the modernists per say, even though one may see many of their strategies deployed across the flatbed canvas in an over-all format. And yet, this will almost always be mixed or fused in-between a series of interlocking logics that have a power all their own, coalescing in the dense systems of reference that Fernandez regularly courts in his art practice.

For Dambrova, representations of the body are more direct, but they also allude to something of a psycho-spiritual trip by projecting an endless series of possible states of being, and even investigating the thought of what it means to being-a-thing. Dambrova’s stark pictorial dynamism includes references to the processes of ablation and condensation, membranes and mitosis, vessels and nerve-endings that all point to complex worlds of interiority and their consequences up the chain of effects that we call subjectivity. Part of this reading of Dambrova’s work comes to mind because it fits Deleuze’s classic description of a Body without Organs (BwO), a notion considered by many to be the most concrete philosophy of distributed sensate surfaces created since Spinoza wrote his Ethics. But of course, even the casual viewer of Dambrova’s paintings are likely to notice that they are really more like Organs without Bodies (OwB). That is because his work captures those hidden aspects attributable to the varied textures of schizo-desiring machines which comprise the atomic, cellular, organal and conscious aspects of a life scaled to its perpetual elements. And yet, Dambrova’s pallet, the idea of the body as inner cosmos, and even its embrace of states of self-othering — which include the valances of transcendental experience — mark his oeuvre as being equally close to the concerns of an artist like Alex Grey. In many ways, Dambrova’s works splits the difference between psycho-spiritual integral theory and the BwO/OwB of Deleuzian affect theory by playing the best of both notions of human experience against each other, fully accepting the connective chains of the inner space as a reflection of the interplay of outer space. Another way of saying the same thing, is to simply acknowledge the many ways that Dambrova’s oeuvre is a secret mediation of sorts on the great chain of being. 

Perhaps this dichotomy of culture and cosmology; of chaos and control; of creativity and contribution — are what has kept the conversation going between Dambrova and Fernandez since the days when they were both young artists. In a certain sense, their concerns are inversions of one another, but with a similar approach to making, synthesizing and concretizing their respective visions. That is because both of their aesthetic tastes are just as internally conflicted, but by way of a method that doesn’t shy away from picturing the compression of frenetic madness pressed outward, compositionally speaking, against areas of rest and reprieve. Even when Damborva and Fernandez speak about their respective working methods in the studio, it often feels as if Dambrova has opted for a more subtractive modality in his editing process while Fernandez’s work tends to feels more additive in nature. Nevertheless, both come away with equally stunning results. 

But, we should ask, do any of the above constitute a set of hard and fast rules for their respective studio practices? No, not at all, and reversals in method can happen anytime when you’ve entered into the field of pictorial intersessions that both artists identify with as so many “Abstract Journeys of Mutation”. But the discussion of flux, dislocation, and even dissolution into other states of being, other ways of seeing and other ways of experiencing the world around us are surely what has kept their aesthetic commitments bounded to a certain type of conversation from 2001 to the present. Reacting to the world around them as well as their own impulses, gives us a sense that their ongoing dialogue relies on a felt quality of call and response between disparate elements within the subterranean process that includes what is most near as well as strange action at a distance. Through not entirely dissimilar in either their outlooks about art or the results of their many endeavors, Dambrova and Fernandez have carved a secure reputation for themselves in the history of west-by-southwest post-regionalism as anyone could ever hope for. That’s because the rising stars of both painters continue to exert a recognizable influence not just on other artists in the region, but increasingly, in the greater artworld outside of Phoenix as well. 

And perhaps, that is what is most recognizable about the broad selection of interests that are on display in this two-person mini-survey, which in many ways, represents an ever-outward moving force of pictorial energy that is barely contained by the space of the gallery. The images alone call to passerby’s with such a magnetic draw that most of the pedestrian traffic can’t help but pop their head in for a look around. In a sense, there is something so inviting about their shows that people want to make friends with the work, understand the work, and open inquire about its origins and motivations. And just as every friendship that endures constitutes a journey or movement of sorts, so too does the recognition of the individual achievements of each artists oeuvre exist independently, still connected at points, but somehow occupying a monadic pocket of space-time all its own. Afterall, a dialogue between two painters can take the form of everything from quiet but recognizable jumps in artistic individuation, to that of mutual encouragement, well-earned respect, genuine admiration and the outright celebration of what one or the other has achieved – in a shared space of congress or even from afar.

And that is part of what is most prescient in the journey from student to professional, from regionalist to post-regionalist, from early competitor to later day comradery – the journey becomes richer, the projects deepen, and the various levels of engagement becomes that much more profound. And here in Arizona, in the valley of the sun, all of this happened with none of the hyperbolic assertions of the modernists, none of the polemics of the postmoderns, but with an open-ended sense of reciprocity that is the hallmark of the pluralist age. Dambrova and Fernandez are something of its embodiment, and their friendship feels more akin to Bruce Nauman and Agnes Martin hanging out in Taos, because they are both unassuming, dedicated and direct.

Toward this end, they have both produced an evolving series of projects that never become programmatic in their approach — in art or life — but which we can recognize as having made a living contribution to the greatest of artistic accomplishments both here in our state and beyond. This exhibition honors the opportunity to be able to see the fruits of this friendship in hindsight, while still being able to look forward, because the respective art practices of Bill Dambrova and Fausto Fernandez represent two of the most progressive approaches to painting that the twenty-first century has yet produced… leaving us to wait and see what the journey will bring from both artists in conversation, or singularly, in the many tomorrows that lie ahead.