Katelena Hernandez: On Comfort, Subversion, and Sincerity

Katelena Hernandez Sculpture

Comfort Sessions. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Katelena Hernandez is a performance and installation artist based in Austin, Texas.  Focusing on the concept of comfort, the societal value and gendering of labor, as well as perceptions of these issues, Hernandez delves into the complexities of the politics surrounding these topics. A graduate of Yale University with a degree in Sculpture, Hernandez has served as Head of Education at the Austin Museum of Art, an independent curator and exhibition designer, as well as on the boards of ArtL!es magazine and Women & Their Work. As well as her performance and visual art production, Hernandez is a jazz and classical singer. She has performed internationally with the Yale Alumni Chorus.

Gracelee Lawrence: First, talk about your relationship to glamour, fashion and adornment, especially when contrasted with quotidian aspects of motherhood and routine.

Katelena Hernandez Sculpture

Treatsuit. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Katelena Hernandez: I find the visual experience of even conceptual work has to be seductive to really lure viewers to want to interact. Equivalently, it is an ugly truth that caregivers are undervalued in our society (which has implications for gender, ethnic, racial, and class equality), whereas fashion and glamour often receive disproportionate reward. I repackage an interaction that otherwise would be day-to-day and probably unrecognized economically and socially, posing the question, now, what is this worth to you? It’s ultimately really about economics and social value. Also, just for me, I like being fully transformed when I perform. I live the scrungy side of motherhood every day. I use glam identities as armor and amplifiers.

GL: Your work holds an alluring generosity and gentleness that generates a pleasant and/or healing experience. How do you feel about conflict and subversion? Why have you chosen to focus on comfort?

KH: I grew up the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, so I thought if you weren’t healing people, you weren’t doing anything worth doing. So I’m serious about wanting to pass on love to my viewers. That said, I think the work is still really subversive. So much work now is built on a foundation of snark. When I started this, I thought, no one’s going to take me seriously. Who makes work about nice? But while my interactions are tender (lullabies, toys, sugar, hugs) I’m looking at the weirdness of what we are, and are not, allowed to do for one another. People are shocked by the intimacy of it, and I’m always finding parallels to escort services, the trust games of BDSM, fetish cultures. There’s protest inside each work, it’s just clothed in gentleness.

Katelena Hernandez Sculpture

Whatever Lola. Photo courtesy of the artist.

GL: Using methods and materials that have strong ties to the domestic sphere, how do you think about your work in terms of feminism, nostalgia, and veneration?

KH: I consider each piece a paean to my grandmothers, great-tias, and mother, all of whom lived a commitment to making a safe, comfortable, welcoming home for our family, even as many of them worked outside of the home. While sexism dictated that was the highest (or only) sphere for women to inhabit, sexism also simultaneously robbed that sphere of value; while that kind of care required so much time and effort, it was expected and invisible. The choice to do that should be honored as business success or artistic achievement is honored. Mine is very gendered work, both in this and in the way the body becomes the page on which the text is writ: many of my works would change meaning fundamentally if a man did them. I’ve played with that dynamic directly, occasionally.

GL: How long have you been a part of the Austin art scene? Over the last several years, what changes have you noticed within the arts in Austin and what trends do you see continuing?

KH: I arrived in Austin in 1995, following my husband, who did law school at UT. At the time I was tapping my watch to leave. There was no real scene, and while there were some really wonderful artists here, they showed elsewhere. Now I find that many weeks I have to make choices about which openings and events I can fit in. I’m excited by the amount of work here that starts to blend boundaries between music, art, theatre, dance, film, and social action. Collaboration is a huge force in Austin, and I love seeing the way artists group and regroup to make collective work. While we still need more commercial galleries and local collectors (I cheer the ones we have!) I have hope that a real, sustainable art ecosystem is starting to swirl into being around the energy coming at the top levels, where we’re getting an injection of internationally-recognized work via The Contemporary Austin and The Blanton, (and the UT Visual Arts Center, Texas State University Galleries, and Women & Their Work, who all blend more Texas artists into their mix), combining with that powerful bottom-up energy of artist collectives, nonprofit and popup galleries, studios, and organizations.

Katelena Hernandez Sculpture

Enthusiastic Greetings. Photo courtesy of the artist.

GL: In one short sentence, how would you describe the art scene in Austin?

KH: I’m going to give you two: Not bad. I want more.

To see more of Hernandez’s work, pop on over to katelenahernandez.squarespace.com

By Gracelee Lawrence

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