Beautiful Grit by T.S. McNeil

white clouds

The nineties were an interesting time in terms of culture. Most people had yet to hear about music or video-streaming, and if you wanted to see art you had to go to a gallery. This was also a point, near the middle of the decade, that what is now known as ‘contemporary’ art became all the rage. The Turner Prize was founded to recognize the best and brightest in the field. Crops of young artists began turning away from more traditional formalism, creating the sort of pieces Conservative columnists like to point to as harbingers of the decline of Western Civilization. Then there was Brian Viveros.

Blending acrylic and airbrush techniques, Viveros’ work has a hyper-realistic style seamlessly combining the aesthetic traditions of fine art with the iconography of American culture, informed by his Mexican heritage. A hybrid of aesthetic sensibilities best shown in his painting titled Libertease.

Composed in oil on wood, the painting depicts a beautiful young woman, dressed in a replica of the Statue of Liberty’s crown and a top made out of a bandoleer, similar to those used by Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa. There is also a patterned rag, like those used by street gangs, tied around her left bicep as a makeshift bandage. In her jet-black hair is a large, red flower, in the tradition of a Flamenco dancer.  

The model’s expression is melancholy, looking away from the viewer with bloodshot eyes, as though she has been crying. An effect amplified by the tattoo of a black-ink tear-drop near her left eye. 

One may well be tempted to write it off as mere exploitation. This is, after all, a case of a comely woman being rendered by a, presumably, straight male. Though to only look at the surface elements of Viveros’ work and thereby condemn it for objectification, would be as calling-out Dr. Strangelove as anti-humanist propaganda. Far from the coy, grinning glamour models of the cheesecake pin-ups in eras past, Viveros’ women are as dangerous or tragic as they are sexy. 

This comes across most strongly in the work titled Bull Fight Her. Depicting a woman dressed in traditional bull-fighting regalia, the model’s expression is even more forlorn than that of her sister in Libertease. She is looking down and away with a look of both sadness and shame, the world ‘Marlboro’ stitched into the breast of the red and black jacket, like an advertiser’s logo on the jacket of a NASCAR driver. Carrying on the tattoo theme, a black-ink flower on her neck peeks out from the blood-flecked collar of her white formal shirt. Both hidden and exposed in the same instant, like so many of the pressing issues facing America, and the world, today.

Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.

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