When the global pandemic of Covid-19 had finally spread to unignorable reaches, the world reluctantly retreated to their homes and left behind a vacant civilization. It now seems almost too apropos to use my quarantine downtime to reflect on the depictions of the deserted places and unoccupied rooms featured in the paintings of Portland artist Gabe Fernandez. But I do love a theme, so fuck it.
I first came across Fernandez’s work when I moved to Seattle—a city already rehearsing quarantine with its Scandinavian hermiticity. The painting, exhibited in the Seattle Arts Museum’s collection of local up-and-coming artists, displayed an arrangement of unattended chairs inside of an otherwise empty room. A low-light hue washed over the painting’s general tone, and an understated sadness resonated from the lonely scene. The oil-on-canvas seemed to reinvent American folk art with working-class realism, fit for a digital age disregarding its history. I was instantly in love with the piece and with all the ways it communicated solitude, forlornness, and heartbreak so effortlessly, almost as if unintentionally. I proceeded to follow his work and am even the proud owner of one his mesmerizing paintings today.
Essentially, Fernandez paints Americana before opening hours. We’re possibly looking through the eyes of a blue collar worker, awake early and on the way to a job several hours before the rest of the country, navigating a deserted landscape occupied by the “stuff” or evidence of people, just without the people. Maybe these spaces will be occupied soon. Maybe they’ll remain desolate as the dust continues to accumulate. Either way, in that very moment, the viewer is alone.
The objects within the abandoned spaces of Fernandez’s work only add to the weight of that loneliness. An empty room is a baron space, whereas an unused object therein—be it an available seat or a full, untouched ketchup bottle—is an unfulfilled purpose, a lingering cause with little to no effect. The restaurant booth, the waiting room chairs, they all were constructed with aspirations beyond their present use. It seems reductive to consider the result “haunting,” but it’s not entirely inaccurate to feel that way when absorbing Fernandez’s work, especially in the current climate.
Masked and hand-sanitized, I wander my neighborhood daily for fresh air and pass shuttered businesses once filled with loquacious voices, pungent food smells, and—most significantly—people. I now squint to peer through their unlit windows to observe a faint scene that’s been long documented by a modest painter from the Pacific Northwest. Through unintentionally prophetic paintings, we had this moment documented before its time.