Lewis deSoto’s Journey
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Entering the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art’s Project Room at the beginning of the Lewis deSoto retrospective exhibition Before After, a video documents the creation and adventures of the artist’s car, the DeSoto Conquest (parked outside the Gallery). The car is a fictitious example of a restored “sexy” Detroit prototype car, and references the artist’s conflicted relationship to the Conquistador of the same name. In discussing the personal obsession that drove him to realize this complex work of art, deSoto does not mince words in naming the brutal legacy of rape and murder his ancestor Hernando deSoto left in the new world, from Peru through the southern United States. Built on the body of a 1965 Chrysler, the Conquest includes such added and meaningful decorative motifs as a symbolic gold sword. One of several ironies in this project is that deSoto’s recreation of this concept car is so convincing it wins awards at vintage car shows.

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Lewis deSoto: the Restoration…his deSoto Conquest

The video interview also includes a description of deSoto’s second conceptual vehicle, a 1981 (the year that Indian tribes received the right to build and run gaming casinos) GMC pickup called Cahuilla after the Southern California tribe to which he is also related. Embellished with gambling and money-related motifs and a sound loop of casino sounds, the pickup again points to a questionable American consumer value system and recalls the troubling history of “the Hispanic” and the Native American on our continent. The Cahuilla, like the Conquest, never appears contrived. Oh-so-believable and innocent, funny and sad!

Most of the rest of Lewis de Soto’s work is less tongue in cheek, but still requires a good deal of investigation for the viewer to form a big picture of what it is all about. His art has impressive and appealing formal qualities and consummate craftsmanship that almost seem to be enough. But the range of work, from a curious vintage “conquest” car, early-career photography, a sound installation, or a pigment-on-paper series of pulsing high-chroma targets, to figurative homages to his father and an installation of chocolate husks with its penetrating and intoxicating scent, presents the mystery of what ties these pieces together.

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Among several homages to deSoto’s father, his torso in chrome.

It is of interest that before his graduate studies at Claremont Graduate School, deSoto received his Bachelor of Art in Studio Art and Religious Study at UC Riverside. deSoto tells the story of receiving a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Demian from a friend as a young man. His own middle name is Demian. Like the many characters of Hesse’s novels, and indeed Hesse himself, Lewis deSoto seems to be on a spiritual journey. On that journey one may need to wrestle with human desire, the seduction of appeal to the senses, the bonds of the physical body and many other examples of the pull of dualities that reside, on one hand, in the mortal world and in the spiritual or infinite world on the other.

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A suit of armor for the artist’s father

Lewis deSoto describes his father as a giant of a man. He was a disciplined individual, a Catholic, with high expectations for his son. His presence loomed large for deSoto in both life and death. On his father’s passing, deSoto created a series of works honoring his father’s many personas to his son. They acknowledge his religious beliefs, his heart and physical strength, his love of music and his immediate repose at the time of death. An empty suit of armor seems to reflect the physical shell that had separated the living man from the eternal.

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deSoto’s installation End of Desire permeated the air with the aroma of chocolate.

To explain the impetus for his ICA installation, End of Desire, with a wooden pier elevated above a room filled with intensely aromatic chocolate husks, deSoto tells of a frequent occurrence at an afternoon meditation he practiced at the Zen Center in Los Angeles. At 3:00 pm, when he was near to having cleared his mind of earthly things and separated himself from the senses of physical being, the ice cream truck would arrive outside in the street advertising its chocolate covered ice cream bars with its irresistible tinkling bell. Enough said.

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Lewis deSoto’s Buddha Footprint

Clearly, Lewis deSoto is drawn to the spiritual practices of Hindu India and the path of the Buddha. (Remember Hesse’s Siddartha?) In another wonderful and perhaps humorous work, a large print, deSoto gives us a subtle but often explicit photomontage of hundreds of tiny women in pornographic postures taken from the Internet. Superimposed on one side faintly, and repeated more boldly on the right, is the first footprint of the Buddha, after his enlightenment and renunciation of carnal desire. Somewhere else, deSoto reminds us that we all have Buddha nature, and can do likewise. OK.

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Paranirvana/Self Portrait inflates and deflates as at the Buddha’s last breath.

deSoto’s daring Paranirvana/Self Portrait (not included in the ICA exhbition) is an inflatable reclining Buddha with deSoto’s own image superimposed onto the face, that has traveled the country extensively. (deSoto notes that it was only 500 years after his death that it was deemed appropriate to represent the physical form of the Buddha.) It is inflated in the morning by air from a fan and deflated in the evening, representing the final respirations of the Buddha at his time of death. Such an overt presentation of the artist’s life as a mirror of the path of the Buddha is somewhat unusual for deSoto, the often-enigmatic conceptual artist. It is an imposing work that, like the sacred reclining Buddhas of Southeast Asia, offers the figure in a simplified anatomical depiction, consistent with the concept that his living form was not burdened with male or female distinctions or a normal human skeletal structure. Serendipitously, the nature of inflated sculpture produces the same effects.

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Lewis deSoto’s KLS Series, pigment on paper

In his 2006 KLS Series of intensely pigmented concentric circles, shown in the ICA exhibition, deSoto again refers to Hesse. In the novel, Klingsor’s Last Summer, Klingsor the painter, facing his death, clings dearly to all the greatest manifestations of life, and experiences the intensity of color in vibrations, harmony and discordance like music. Experiencing color like a great symphony, radiating, pulsing and alive, could be the painter’s most exhilarating moment and mark an attachment to the senses most difficult to relinquish.

To further explore the remarkable relationship of deSoto the artist on a journey toward transcendence and the life journey of Hermann Hesse, read the beautiful 2007 essay KLS, Works by Lewis deSoto, written by Nick Stone.

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