Nihura Montiel "A Dog Named Masterpiece"

24 February - 23 March 2024

In 1946, the dog called Masterpiece was born. As the story goes, the silver toy poodle was world-renowned before he hit middle age, making a vertiginous ascent to stardom after sweeping his first Westminster dog show. Fans far and wide adored him, most notably Rita Hayworth’s husband, who made a record-breaking bid of $25,000 to procure Masterpiece for her wedding present. But the dog could not be bought: his owner vowed never to part with him, not for any price.


Masterpiece’s fairytale ends with a cliffhanger. Our coveted poodle disappeared from his owner’s pet store one evening. An eyewitness reported seeing him stolen from the shop by a dark haired woman in a red coat, but Masterpiece was never found. In a tantalizing twist of fate, it seems he became Desire’s own dog.


A Dog Named Masterpiece, Nihura Montiel’s first solo exhibition with Sebastian Gladstone, borrows desire’s dog, and cat, and a host of collectibles, all rendered in brushed charcoal at supersized scale. Standing in the center of the exhibition feels like getting dropped down into an enchanted gift shop where the collectibles have been pumped full of fertilizer-for-the-inanimate. The seven foot tall teddy bear (Mentally Ill) engulfs us in a pearled sublime. The chiaroscuro cat (When you think of something beautiful, think of yourself), once a Murano glass miniature, has a scintillating arched back bigger than a beast. Eerily, we confront titanic spectors of objects that should fit in the palm of our hand.


Montiel’s work is striking and shiny and somehow inscrutable. It makes us lean in the way a whisper does. Come closer, the cat calls, but when we are whisper-close, she dissolves. Up close, there is no cat, no poodle, no fine porcelain doll in repose, just the smokey gradient of charcoal on canvas.


It is only at whisper-length that we get a hint of the artist’s hand, a hand which tries painstakingly to conceal itself. Montiel wields the weapons of a beauty queen. She works exclusively with the sumptuous brushes of a makeup artist’s contour kit - brushes intended, not for the silver of a knife’s colossal cutting edge (FML, 60”x 42”), but for the blush and bronzer of a woman’s made-up face.


As a makeup technique, contouring can be traced back to Elizabethan theater, then to the 80s drag scene and 90s high fashion and eventually to its commercial apex: the market-bending success of Kim K’s contour kit. If all the world’s a stage, the contour kit says, why not make each selfie a masterpiece? The artist turns her sense for the superlative towards the objects that line the walls of this show. Her work is high gloss. High femme. It hurts. And perhaps it hurts Nihura most of all, because for her, beauty is a crucible. 


Montiel brushes her charcoal with pixel-perfectionism. Every line and shape and shadow is scrutinized. She makes paintings that dream of being photographs, paintings that reach for the unreachable. It is the work’s inherent tension that mesmerizes us. In the tension of its medium, its scale and its subjects, we confront the riddle of desire. Why, the teapot asks, must you desire what you cannot have?

-Waverly Mandel

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