Peres Projects has just opened Portrait for Loneliness by Dalton Gata (b. 1977), the artist’s second solo exhibition with the gallery in Berlin.
Born in Cuba and based in Puerto Rico, Gata takes the Caribbean diaspora as his central subject. Using bold and vivid colors he imbues his canvases with an energy that draws on the vibrancy of Caribbean visual culture, lending brightness and vigor to the painted surface.
Although visually rich, Portrait for Loneliness addresses the motif of the passport photo – a typically colorless portrait – through which Gata considers the parallel realities of privilege and marginalization that are embedded in such forms of official identification. He recognizes the passport photo as a constrictive genre of image, one which classifies and segregates individuals based on nationality and presumed birthright.
As reflected in the title, through this series Gata emphasizes the experience of solitude that is particular to the immigrant: leaving one’s home is often a sacrifice of the familiar. Yet, while Portrait for Loneliness addresses this by making reference the passport photo as an alienating visual form, Gata renders his portraits of ambiguously gendered figures deliberately inadequate to official standards. They are images that do not comply with border control and the bureaucratic management of people in transit. Certainly, the characteristics of passport photos are narrow: sitters are photographed against a neutral background; hair is pulled away from the face; accessories or adornments are not permitted in the frame. They are typically uncreative images, used to control and organize bodies, thereby concealing individual personality and true expression of identity.
In answer to this, Gata accentuates the unusual or eccentric features of his sitters. They wear extraordinary costumes, or are elaborately made-up with colorfully shadowed eyes and painted lips, effectively subverting the government sanctioned criteria that determine not only the visual qualities of a passport photo but a person’s right to citizenship. Through these works Gata also reveals the psychology of each sitter, making visible both their unique physical characteristics in an expression of defiance and empowerment, while also divulging the interior life of the figures he paints. Thus, Gata draws a link to the ways in which people often construct “characters” or personalities as a type of armor, or as a means of personal security. His approach to this is complex: while building a facade or affectation can indeed be a tactic for survival — the effort to disguise one’s true self out of a need to self-protect can be immensely lonely — unique expressions of personhood are equally a cause for celebration.