The work of Dominican-born, New York-based painter Firelei Báez, on view in her L.A. debut at Richard Heller Gallery, is a captivating fusion of lightness and heft, agility and brawn. Her figures — nearly all of them female — are fleshy and substantial, with an animalistic quality, in several cases, that suggests a mythological undercurrent. Yet they’re entangled in wreathes of wispy ornament: curling hair, leaves, fur, birds, patterned drapery and decoration.
Most of the works are gouache on paper, with elements of graphite, ink and silk-screen, and the figures float as if weightless across the white space of each page, with the air of being in constant motion, whether barefoot or in heels (as many are).
Only two years out of graduate school, Báez has packed the work with erudite allusions — the press release cites such works as Dick Hebdige’s writing on British punk subcultures, Islamic miniature painting and black Creole fashion in 18th century New Orleans — geared to fleshing out tangled concepts of race and the formation of cultural identity.
In this, the work has a familiar ring, building as it does on a growing tradition of smart, racially charged feminist work by artists like Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu. There’s something distinctive, however, in the intricacy of her imagery, in the careful balance of elegance and force, that promises to carry the ideas to a similar distinction.