come in, love,
we kin 1.
by Susanna V. Temkin, PhD.
In his most recent series of paintings, David Antonio Cruz celebrates the concept of chosen family through intimate representations of queer kinship. Partners, friends, lovers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and other relations are portrayed in canvases that expand both normative notions of family and the traditional genre of portraiture 2. Privileging agency over bloodline, the series honors the living bonds between members of the artist’s own community, who actively collaborated in the making of the works through both dialogue and extended portraiture sessions. Initiated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when concepts of home, family, and connection took on new meanings, Cruz’s paintings offer timely reconsiderations of the possibilities of kinship based on mutual feelings of love, choice, and affinity.
Combining abstract passages with recognizable elements, Cruz’s compositions situate the family groups in undefined – or rather undefinable – spaces. This ambiguous context reinforces the liberatory notion of siting home within and among one another, rather than in a specific place of fixed origin. This is visualized in the diverse and intersectional figures depicted in the paintings, whose bodies lean against, lie upon, reach toward, and physically uplift each other through their poses and touch. Such compositions embody a sense of mutual support through their collective ensembles, as in the stridently hued canyoustaywithmetonight_causeyouarehere,youarehere,andweareherewithyou. The work borrows from the art historical tradition of regentessenstuk (Dutch regent group portraiture) featuring groups of board or guild members; however, while such precedents decorously recognized those united by civic association, canyoustaywithmetonight, revels in the more personal relationships among the nine individuals represented, whose entangled limbs at image center reflect the strength of their bond, literally joining the two diptych panels.
Other works allude to the vulnerability of queer kinship which does not conform to convention- al hierarchies or societal expectations. Cruz counters such external threats by surrounding his figures within an ambiance of comfort and safety. Soft fabrics and enveloping furniture seem to hug and cushion each grouping within warm spaces that bend inward, defying the rigid angles of the wood panels. This sense of protection is reinforced via the figures themselves, as innothatsummernight, theywashaway, theywashitallaway, away, theyalwaysgoaway, in which a couple becomes one another’s pillows in an expression of open trust. Despite their ease with one another, the pair seems to retain a personal, psychic distance that respects the private nature of their bond. Such boundaries are similarly intuited in the multilayered drawings, andweburncandles, sage, cooktheirfavoritefoods, carrycharmswithpictures, playsongs, andpresentflowers, fruits ,andburnincensetothem, in which a filigree-like application of wax pencil unveils figures embedded within swaths of dense foliage. In shielding his sitters from easy viewing, Cruz honors the sanctity of chosen families, by striking a careful balance between visibility and exposure.
Although most prominent in the drawings, shadows and outlines of leaves, branches, and other floral elements are present throughout the series. Whether depicted as the backdrop in images such as andwe’lllookatthecloudsfrombothsidesnow or faintly inscribed onto the skin or clothing of select figures, these organic forms serve as referents to places sacred to the sitters. In some instances, they allude to sites where one’s chosen family lives or was formed, as in the case of the three drawings that feature trees native to the cities of New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles. In other cases, they convey a diasporic bond, shared background, or common homeland. Together, they metaphorically allude to the concept of family trees that grow and branch in different directions.
Cruz’s painterly interrogation of the concept of family expands upon a theme long present in his practice, and perhaps most overt in his 2015 canvas, Puerto Rican Pieta, now in the collection of El Museo del Barrio. As in his new series, this earlier work draws on art historical tradition in its affective representation of the maternal relationship. It thus serves as the precedent and sister-portrait wherewelieawakedreamingyouarehere, which similarly captures both the intimacy and complexity of intergenerational love. Indeed, in each image, both David and Stephanie cling to their respective “mothers,” to whom they are both rooted yet simultaneously removed, as signaled by their outward gazes and sensuous poses.
This sense of filial love is again present in i’mawarethatyouarewatchingme, ididwhatihadtodotosaveus, which belongs to Cruz’s ongoing series of self-portraits. Created at periodic intervals, the artist emulates both the practice and gesture of Rembrandt, enrobed in opulent drapery and boldly gazing forth from the picture plane. Yet, whereas Rembrandt’s portraits reflect artistic ego and self-fashioning, Cruz’s inclusion of gilded picture frames suggests an alternate gesture of homage to those who helped raise him. Placed closest to his heart in a ghostly frame is his biological mother, who appears alongside representations of others to whom he attributes a maternal role. Barely contained within Cruz’s arms, the many frames reflect a personal sense of chosen family, while reiterating the plurality and expansiveness of queer kinship explored throughout the series.
1. Kai M. Green. “In the Life: On Black Queer Kinship.” Women, Gender, and Families of Color, Vol. 7, No. 1, “Black Girlhood and Kinship” (Spring 2019), p. 101.
2. For each painting, Cruz asked friends and acquaintances to consider who was their chosen family. While some selected a single person, others invited an expansive group. The artist then traveled to their respective locations around the U.S. to host each family in specially designed portrait sessions accompanied by food and music to create a warm and inviting sense of home. Linking Cruz’s painterly practice with his background in performance, the conversations held during the sessions inspired some of the poetic titles of the paintings.